Category Archives: Action

Having a wild weekend: Girls vs. Gangsters (*1/2)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on March 10, 2018)

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As far as wacky adventure-comedies concerning young Chinese women having a wild and woolly bachelorette weekend in an exotic foreign city go, I suppose you could do worse than Barbara Wong’s Girls vs. Gangsters 2. Perhaps arguably, as hard as you try…you could only do marginally worse.

I’m sensing your biggest question (aside from “WTF is Mike Tyson doing in this film?”) is: “How in the wide world of sports did I manage to miss “Girls vs. Gangsters 1”? Tricky, that question. There is an explanation. There was a previous 2014 Hong Kong film called Girls, also directed by Ms. Wong (aka Zhenzhen Huang), featuring the same characters. I’m afraid that I also managed to miss that one, so don’t let that get you down.

So anyway, our fun-loving trio Hei Man, Kimmy, and Ka Nam (Ivy Chen, Fiona Sit and Ning Chang) have been BFFs since high school. One of them is set to tie the knot, so the girls decide to celebrate by taking up an invitation from a mutual friend who is currently working on a film in Vietnam to fly in and hang out for the weekend. It gets a little fuzzy from there. They visit a huge estate owned by a local gangster, engage in a drinking contest, and wake up the next morning on a beach, naked and chained to each other. Fun!

The remainder of the film (which grinds on and on…too lengthy at nearly 2 hours) has them attempting to retrace their steps, find the member of their party who is missing, and figure out why one of them has a tattoo of some random dude on her neck. If it’s starting to sound suspiciously like the Hangover franchise meets Bridesmaids, your suspicions are well-founded. And by the time the gals encounter Mike Tyson (living in a jungle compound), you may begin to suspect that someone slipped a mickey in your drink, too.

The locales are colorful, and the three leads bring a certain goofy, manic energy to the table, but the film is ultimately too over-the-top for its own good. Also, something may have been lost in translation, but employing a line like “You’ll be raped 100 times!” for comic intent is questionable in any modern comedy; much less one directed by a woman.

If you really must pry: Top 10 films of 2017

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on December 23, 2017)

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With the year nearly over, ‘tis the season for my roundup of the top 10 feature films out of the 50+ that I reviewed in 2017. Granted, there are several intriguing late December releases that I have yet to see, including Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Phantom Thread, and the biopics I, Tonya and Film Stars Don’t Die in  Liverpool.  However, it appears those films will not be opening in Seattle in time for me to review them in 2017, so what you see here is my “official” top 10 list:

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After the Storm – This elegant family drama from writer-director Hirokazu Kore-eda is a wise, quietly observant and at times genuinely witty take on the prodigal son story. All the performances are beautifully nuanced; particularly when star Hiroshi Abe and scene-stealer Kirin Kiki are onscreen. Kudos as well to DP Yutaka Yamazaki’s painterly cinematography, and Hanargumi’s lovely soundtrack. Granted, some could find the proceedings too nuanced and “painterly”, but those with patience will be richly rewarded.

Full review

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Bad Black – Some films defy description. This is one of them. Yet…a guilty pleasure. Written, directed, filmed, and edited by Ugandan action movie auteur Nabwana I.G.G.at his self-proclaimed “Wakaliwood studios” (essentially his house in the slums of Wakaliga), it’s best described as Kill Bill meets Slumdog Millionaire, with a kick-ass heroine bent on revenge. Despite a low budget and a high body count, it’s winningly ebullient and self-referential, with a surprising amount of social realism regarding slum life packed into its 68 minutes. The Citizen Kane of African commando vengeance flicks.

Full review

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Becoming Who I Was – Until credits rolled for this South Korean entry by co-directors Chang-Yong Moon and Jeon Jin, I was unsure whether I’d seen a beautifully cinematic documentary, or a narrative film with amazingly naturalistic performances. Either way, I experienced the most compassionate, humanist study this side of Ozu.

Turns out, it’s all quite real, and an obvious labor of love by the film makers, who went to Northern India and Tibet to document young “Rinpoche” Angdu Padma and his mentor/caregiver for 8 years as they struggle hand to mouth and strive to fulfill the boy’s destiny (he is believed to have been a revered Buddhist teacher in a past life). A moving journey (in both the literal and spiritual sense) that has a lot to say about the meaning of love and selflessness.

Full review

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Blade Runner 2049 – So many sci-fi films these days needlessly assault the eardrums and are so jarringly flash-cut as to induce vertigo. Not this one. Which is to say that Blade Runner 2049 is leisurely paced. The story line is not as deep or complex as the film makers undoubtedly want you to think. The narrative is essentially a 90 minute script (by original Blade Runner co-screenwriter Hampton Fancher and Michael Green), stretched to a 164-minute run time.

So why is it on my top 10 list? Well, for one thing, the “language” of film being two-fold (aural and visual), the visual language of Blade Runner 2049 is mesmerizing. Star Ryan Gosling delivers another one of his Steve McQueen-ish performances, and it works. I imagine the most burning question you have about Denis Villeneuve’s film is: “Are the ‘big’ questions that were left dangling at the end of Ridley Scott’s 1982 film answered?” Don’t ask me. I just do eyes. You may not find the answers you seek, but you may find yourself still thinking about this film long after the credit roll.

Full review

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A Date for Mad Mary –  The phrase “star-making performance” is overused, but it’s apt to describe Seana Kerslake’s turn in Darren Thornton’s dramedy about a troubled young woman who is being dragged kicking and screaming (and swearing like a sailor) into adulthood.

Fresh from 6 months in a Dublin jail for instigating a drunken altercation, 20 year-old “mad” Mary (Kerslake) is asked to be maid of honor by her BFF Charlene. Charlene refuses her a “plus-one”, assuming that her volatile friend isn’t likely to find a date in time for the wedding. Ever the contrarian, Mary insists that she will; leading to a completely unexpected relationship. The director’s screenplay (co-written with his brother Colin) is chockablock with brash and brassy dialog, and conveys that unique penchant the Irish possess for using “fook” as a noun, adverb, super verb and adjective.

Full review

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Endless Poetry – Ever since his 1970 Leone-meets-Fellini “western” El Topo redefined the meaning of “WTF?, Chilean film maker/poet/actor/composer/comic book creator Alejandro Jodorowsky has continued to push the creative envelope. His new film, the second part of a “proposed pentalogy of memoirs”, follows young Alejandro (played by the director’s son Adan, who also composed the soundtrack) as he comes into his own as a poet.

Defying his nay-saying father, he flees to Santiago and ingratiates himself with the local bohemians. He caterwauls into a tempestuous relationship with a redheaded force of nature named Stella. What ensues is the most gloriously over-the-top biopic since Ken Russell’s The Music Lovers. This audacious work of art not only confirms that its creator has the soul of a poet, but stands as an almost tactile evocation of poetry itself.

Full review

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I Am Not Your Negro – The late writer and social observer James Baldwin once said that “Whatever white people do not know about Negroes reveals, precisely and inexorably, what they do not know about themselves.” Sadly, thanks to the emboldening of certain elements within American society that have been drawn from the shadows by the openly racist rhetoric spouting from our nation’s current leader, truer words have never been spoken.

Indeed, anyone who watches Raoul Peck’s documentary will recognize not only the beauty of Baldwin’s prose, but the prescience of such observations. Both are on full display throughout Peck’s timely treatise on race relations in America, in which he mixes archival news footage, movie clips, and excerpts from Baldwin’s TV appearances with narration by an uncharacteristically subdued Samuel L. Jackson, reading excerpts from Baldwin’s unfinished book, Remember This House. An excellent and enlightening film.

Full review

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Loving Vincent – If I liken Dorota Kobiela and Hugh Welchman’s first feature film to staring at an oil painting for 95 minutes…that could be misinterpreted as a negative. But I’m only making you aware that their Vincent van Gogh biopic is literally a collection of the artist’s paintings, brought to life. It’s actually an ingenious concept. Utilizing over 120 of van Gogh’s paintings as storyboard and settings, the filmmakers incorporate roto-scoped live action with a hand-painted, frame-by-frame touch-up to fashion a truly unique animated feature.

The screenplay (co-written by directors Kobiela and Welchman along with Jacek von Dehnel) was derived from 800 of the artist’s letters. It is essentially a speculative mystery that delves into the circumstances of van Gogh’s last days and untimely demise. While this is not the definitive van Gogh biopic (Vincente Minnelli’s colorful 1956 effort Lust For Life, featuring an intense and moving performance by Kirk Douglas, takes that honor), it is the most visually resplendent one that I’ve seen to date.

Full review

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The Women’s Balcony – A warm, witty and wise Israeli dramedy from director Emil Ben-Shimon and screenwriter Shlomit Nehama. The story is set in present-day Jerusalem, in the predominately orthodox Bukharan Quarter neighborhood. What begins as a joyous celebration at a small synagogue takes a dark turn when the “women’s balcony” collapses. This leaves the congregation with no place to worship, and no spiritual leader until their aging rabbi recovers from his resulting nervous breakdown.

Fate delivers an ambitious young rabbi, who quickly ingratiates himself as “temporary” head of their synagogue. A little too quickly for the women of the congregation, who are chagrined to learn that the hasty remodeling eschews the open balcony for a stuffy glorified walk-in closet where they’re now relegated to sit for services. Soon, the women find themselves reluctantly engaged in virtual guerilla warfare against this fundamentalist redux of their previously progressive synagogue. This coterie of strong female characters are well-served by their real-life counterparts, resulting in a truly superb ensemble performance.

Full review

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Your Name – I have sat through more than my fair share of “body swap” movies, but it’s been a while since I have experienced one as original and entertaining as Makoto Shinkai’s animated fantasy. The story concerns a teenage girl named Mitsuha, who lives in a bucolic mountain village, and a teenage boy named Taki, who resides in bustling Tokyo. They are separated by geography and blissfully unaware of each other’s existence, but they both share the heady roller coaster ride of hormone-fueled late adolescence, replete with all its attendant anxieties and insecurities. There’s something else that they share: a strange metaphysical anomaly. Or is it a dream? Sinkai’s film is a perfect blend of fantasy, sci-fi, mystery, comedy, coming-of-age tale, and old-fashioned tear-jerker (yes-I laughed and I cried). In short, it’s one of the best animes of recent years.

Full review

SIFF 2017: God of War ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on June 3, 2017)

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Hong Kong action maestro Gordon Chan’s war epic stars Sammo Hung as a general with an under-trained “people’s army” desperately trying to get the upper hand on a sizable coterie of seasoned Japanese pirates who have been wreaking havoc up and down the coast. Chan has his Japanese cast members speak in-language; it’s unique for a Chinese film, and enhances the verisimilitude. Sections of the story line get murky and confusing, but colorful, rousing (and frequent) battle scenes make up for occasional lulls.

SIFF 2017: Bad Black ***1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on May 20, 2017)

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Some films defy description. This is one of them. Yet…a guilty pleasure. Written, directed, filmed, and edited by Ugandan action movie auteur Nabwana I.G.G.at his self-proclaimed “Wakaliwood studios” (essentially his house in the slums of Wakaliga), it’s best described as Kill Bill meets Slumdog Millionaire, with a kick-ass heroine bent on revenge. Despite a low budget and a high body count, it’s winningly ebullient and self-referential, with a surprising amount of social realism regarding slum life packed into its 68 minutes. The Citizen Kane of African commando vengeance flicks.

Blu-ray reissue: Lone Wolf and Cub ***1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on December 10, 2016)

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Lone Wolf and Cub –The Criterion Collection Blu-ray (Box Set)

Generally speaking, I don’t gravitate toward ultra-violent films, but this manga-inspired series from Japan (6 features released between 1972 and 1974) is at once so shockingly audacious yet intoxicatingly artful, that any self-respecting cineaste has got to love it…for its sheer moxie, if nothing else. As critic Patrick Macias writes in the booklet that accompanies Criterion’s box set:

“[…] the Lone Wolf and Cub series contains some of the best sword-slinging, Buddhist-sutra-spouting samurai fiction ever committed to celluloid, enriched with the beauty of Japan’s natural landscape and seasoned with the vulgarity of its pop entertainment…”

Erm, what he said. Admittedly, the narrative is minimal, and the basic formula for all the sequels is pretty much established in the first installment: A shogun’s executioner (played throughout by the hulking but surprisingly nimble Tomisaburo Wakayama) loses his gig and hits the road as an assassin-for-hire, with his toddler son (Akihiro Tomikawa) in tow. Actually, he’s pushing the kid around in a very imaginatively weaponized pram (as one does). These films are almost beyond description; but they are consistently entertaining.

Criterion does the usual bang-up job on image and sound with crisp 2K digital restorations on all six films. The hours of extras includes a hi-def print of Shogun Assassin, a 1980 English-dubbed reedit of the first two films. A real treat for movie buffs.

Blu-ray reissue: To Live and Die in L.A. ****

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on December 3, 2016)

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To Live and Die in L.A. Collector’s Edition Shout! Factory Blu-ray

Essentially a remake of The French Connection (updated for the 80s), this fast-moving, tough-as-nails neo noir from director William Friedkin ignites the senses on every level: visual, aural and visceral.

Leads William Peterson (as an obsessed treasury agent) and Willem Dafoe (as his criminal nemesis) rip up the screen with star-making performances (both were relative unknowns). While the narrative adheres to familiar “cop on the edge” tropes, there’s an undercurrent of weirdness throughout that makes this a truly unique genre entry (“The stars are God’s eyes!” Peterson’s girlfriend shrieks at him at one point, for no apparent reason). Friedkin co-adapted the screenplay with source novel author Gerald Petievich.

Fueled by an outstanding soundtrack by Wang Chung, Friedkin’s vision of L.A. is painted in contrasts of dusky orange and strikingly vivid reds and blacks; an ugly/beautiful noir Hell rendered by ace DP Robby Muller (who has worked extensively with Wim Wenders and Jim Jarmusch).

Shout! Factory’s Blu-ray sports a print sourced from a new 4K scan that is a noticeable improvement over MGM’s from a couple years back, as well as new and archival interviews with cast, crew and composers.

SIFF 2016: The Final Master **1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on May 21, 2016)

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This is a fairly boilerplate Hong Kong action flick; and indeed the well-choreographed action sequences are the main attraction. In other words…don’t strain yourself attempting to follow the needlessly complex plot, nor keeping track of myriad characters; it will just make your brain hurt. Director Xu Haofeng is a martial arts practitioner himself, so I’m sure hardcore genre fans will appreciate the authenticity of the Wing Chun style fighting. And I do have to give props to an action hero dressed in a white smock and a black bowler, taking out bad guys John Steed style with his umbrella!

SIFF 2016: Dragon Inn ****

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on May 21, 2016)

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Full disclosure: I only recently caught this influential 1967 wuxia adventure for the first time; my excuse being that it is rarely screened and was previously tough to find on home video, until last fall’s (Region “B” only) Blu-ray reissue from Masters of Cinema (which I was able to order from Amazon UK). Judging from the absolutely gorgeous Blu-ray transfer, it looks like SIFF attendees are in for a treat, with a big screen film presentation struck from (I’m assuming) the same recent 4K restoration. King Hu’s film is not your typical Kung-Fu epic; in fact it has more in common with Yojimbo, Rio Bravo and The Good, the Bad, & the Ugly than, say,  Enter the Dragon. It’s colorful, exciting, suspenseful…and unpredictable, with a jaw-dropping finale. I know that I’m running the chalk backwards, but the biggest surprise for me was realizing how huge of an influence this film was on Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight.

The Zen of Yen: Ip Man 3 **1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on  January 23, 2016)

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You know what they say-everybody has to start somewhere. Bruce Lee was no exception; he had a mentor, a gentleman known as Ip Man, who was a master in a Shaolin martial arts discipline called Wing Chun. Hong Kong director Wilson Yip’s new film, Ip Man 3, marks his third installment in a franchise dramatizing specific periods of Master Ip’s life.

Donnie Yen (Dragon Inn, Iron Monkey) returns in the eponymous role. The story is set in 1959, which was the year (at least as dramatized in the film…Wiki begs to differ) a young and cocky Bruce Lee (Danny Chan) first approaches Master Ip and expresses his desire to become his disciple. But apparently, he’s just not “fast” enough yet (like I said-everybody has to start somewhere). After this brief interaction in the opening scene, the Bruce Lee character drops from the story (unless I wasn’t paying close enough attention).

Keeping Bruce Lee in the story might have propped things up; otherwise you’re left with a standard genre pic, with Ip Man taking on an ambitious, mobbed-up property developer (Mike Tyson…yes, that Mike Tyson) who has built up a network of surly youth gangs to intimidate, terrorize, and generally soften up the locals so that they will become more pliant. Thankfully, Tyson doesn’t have too many lines; although his call-out challenging Ip Man to go mano a mano (“Lethee who hath the fascist fifths!”) is eminently quotable.

The ensuing vignettes of explosive street violence are interlaced with family melodrama, as Ip Man deals with his wife’s terminal illness. To the director and cast’s credit, these scenes are sensitively handled and genuinely touching at times; but unfortunately the juxtaposition with the action sequences (well-choreographed and entertaining as they are) is jarring. In the end, the soap could render the film as too slippery a slope for action fans.

Spy vs. acronym: Spectre **1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on November 7, 2015)

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In my review of Sam Mendes’ 2012 James Bond adventure, Skyfall, I wrote:

I’m sure you’ve heard the old chestnut about cockroaches and Cher surviving the Apocalypse? As the James Bond movie franchise celebrates its 50th year […] you might as well add “007” to that short list of indestructible life forms. […] Love him or hate him, it’s a fact of life that as long as he continues to lay those gold-painted eggs for the studio execs, agent 007 is here to stay.

Mendes set the bar pretty high with his first stab at the venerable legacy; in fact I was impressed enough with his Bond installment to include it in my top 10 films of 2012 list. Unfortunately, as it turns out, Mendes may have set the bar too high; or perhaps by saying “yes” to Spectre (Bond #24, if you’re counting) he baited the sophomore curse. Whatever the reason, I found 007’s new outing to be a bit shaky, and not quite so stirring.

Unless you live in a cave, I’m sure you’re aware that Daniel Craig is back on board, as are Skyfall screenwriters John Logan, Neal Purvis and Robert Wade, joined this time out by Jez Butterworth, who co-scripted the 2010 political thriller Fair Game (my review).

The story picks up with Bond still grieving the loss of his mentor, M (Judi Dench). As foreshadowed in the previous installment, 007 now answers to a freshly anointed “M” (Ray Fiennes), with whom he is already at loggerheads (as we know, he’s a great agent in the field, but has “issues” with authority figures). An enigmatic “last request” from the late M sends Bond gallivanting off to Mexico City for an unauthorized hit job. This sets up the traditional jaw-dropping action sequence opener, which doesn’t disappoint (…yet).

The plot gets a little murky from here; Bond next heads for Rome, long enough to, erm, pump the lovely widow (Monica Bellucci) of a nefarious hit man for information regarding a shadowy international cabal of assassins, spies, terrorists, extortionists, gypsies, tramps and thieves who generally engage in Very Bad Things, and crash one of their board meetings…where he is recognized and called out by its CEO (Christoph Waltz) and subsequently run out of town and dogged all over Europe and North Africa by a hulking henchman named Hinx (Dave Bautista). He is soon joined on his escapade by the lovely daughter (Lea Seydoux) of yet another recently departed nefarious hit man.

Back in London, M is embroiled in an inter-agency scuffle with (to my recollection) a new character in the Bond canon, “C” (Andrew Scott). “C” is the type that our friends across the pond might refer to as a “smug git”. He views M and his agents as anachronisms; much too “analog” in an age where there are so many high-tech surveillance/operational alternatives (you get the impression that this guy would feel right at home with the NSA).

One of the main problems with the film is that it never quite gels for either of these two distinct narratives; when Bond’s exploits in the field and M’s political woes back at the home office do finally converge, it feels tricksy and false in a curiously rushed third act.

It frequently seems as if this film wasn’t being directed by a “person”, but rather by an evenly divided focus group of Bond fans; half of them the adrenaline junkies who really dig the gadgets and the babes and the chase scenes and the shit blowing up, and the other half (like yours truly) who have applauded Bond 2.0’s sense of grittiness, intrigue, and character development that (arguably) flirts more with John Le Carre than Ian Fleming.

But by trying too hard to please everyone, you end up with both sides getting short shrift. The action fans will probably start looking at their watches every time the story moves back to HQ (I couldn’t help noticing that many people at the full house promo screening I attended chose those moments to take their restroom breaks), and those longing for a bit more complexity may view the action pieces as distracting and perfunctory this time out.

Ultimately, Spectre plays more like a “greatest hits” collection than a brand new album.

Speaking of which…Sam Smith is obviously a talented fellow and has some great pipes, but “Writing’s on the Wall” has got to be, hands down, the most ponderous and overwrought Bond theme of all time. It goes on longer than the Old Testament. Seriously:

If you managed to make it through that entire video, please accept my condolences. You deserve a palette cleanser now, so here are my picks for the Top 5 Bond movie themes:

“A View to a Kill”performed by Duran Duran

“For Your Eyes Only”performed by Sheena Easton

“Goldfinger”performed by Shirley Bassey

“Live and Let Die”performed by Paul McCartney

“You Only Live Twice”performed by Nancy Sinatra