Man on the Dragon


There is no “I” in dragon boats.

(2018) Comedy (One Cool) Francis Ng, Jennifer Yu, Chan-Leung Poon, Tony Wu, Kenny Wang. Directed by Sunny Chan

In sports, as in life, it is much harder to overcome individuals working towards a common goal than it is individuals working for themselves. United, a group of people can accomplish just about anything; without that unification, accomplishment can be difficult to achieve.

Pegasus Broadband is a Hong Kong Internet access provider who is going through what businesses euphemistically call “an austerity phase.” Rounds of layoffs have hit the engineering department particularly hard as three installers deal with an increasingly uncertain professional future. In addition, they are all going through mid-life crises in their personal lives as well; Chan Lung (Ng), a single man, has an unrequited love for the girl next door – well, her mom anyway. Chan cooks for the two women and generally takes care of them, dreaming of a day when the three of them will be a family.

Suk Yee (Poon) gets no peace at home. His mother and his wife bicker constantly and the toxic environment has moved their young daughter to get in a series of physical altercations at school. William (Wang) has given up a professional table tennis career for his girlfriend but is beginning to suspect that the price for staying with her is too high. Finally, middle manager Tai (Wu) is estranged from his wife whom he believes is having an affair with a sleazy real estate agent.

Pegasus, seeking to repair their tarnished image, has decided to put together a dragon boat team for an upcoming race. All four of these men are drafted to row on the team. Hard-nosed coach Dorothy (Yu) – who is forced to use an American crew coach as a front in order to get the gig even though she’s ridiculously qualified – knows the company expects to win the race but given the sorts of athletes she has and their lack of cohesiveness as a team that there is absolutely no chance in hell that they could beat teams that have been together for years but gamely, she tries to whip them into shape.

Although this is ostensibly a sports underdog movie and there are lots of elements that characterize that particular genre, this isn’t strictly put a sports movie. Rather, it’s about men facing uncertainty in their lives and trying to navigate often murky waters in an effort to find some sort of clue as to where they’re going, or even to take charge of their own boats. The main actors mesh together well and their relationships are totally believable. They act like long-time friends do, razzing each other and supporting each other when the chips are down.

The women in the film fare less well. Either they’re harpies, teases, unfaithful or unattainable. I wondered at times if writer-director Chan isn’t a bit misogynistic in his outlook; even coach Dorothy, who is a bit of a rallying point for the men, does not come off particularly well and she’s the only female character in the film who has any sort of development whatsoever.

The rowing sequences are nicely done, the speed and grace of dragon boats in the waters of Hong Kong harbor being captured well. The camera is absolutely smooth (I’m wondering if they used a Steadicam-like device to keep the camera stable) which makes watching the races pleasurable rather than bringing a handheld choppiness that leads to a feeling of seasickness in certain other films trying to capture rowing or crew races.

The movie feels a bit on the long side and the plot on the predictable side. Some of the dialogue is also a little overwrought but the movie has just enough charm to just about overcome the negatives and earn a mild recommendation. It’s not going to set any marks for originality although the number of midlife crisis movies isn’t a high one but I think unless you’re extremely discerning you’ll find enough cinematic bliss to make this one worthwhile.

REASONS TO GO: The male bonding is authentic and believable. The boat sequences are smooth and beautiful.
REASONS TO STAY: The subtitles were difficult to read at times. The movie was a little bit on the misogynistic side.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a little bit of mild profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The actors did their own rowing, supervised by actual dragon boat athletes.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/18/18: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Playing for Keeps
FINAL RATING: 5.5/10
NEXT:
Far From the Tree

1/1


A random quote for a random image.

(2018) Drama (Gravitas) Lindsey Shaw, Judd Nelson, Dendrie Taylor, James P. Engel, Leland Alexander Wheeler, Danna Maret, Veronnica Avila, John E. Tremba, F. Robert McMurray, Troy Bogdan, Mary Agnes Shearon. Directed by Jeremy Phillips

 

There is a difference between Art and art; art illuminates, Art condescends. Art calls attention to itself; art comes by your attention honestly. Art is pretentious; art is genuine. Art appeals to a limited “in” group; art is for everybody. I love art; I find it nearly impossible to personally connect to Art.

Lissa (Shaw) lives in a small rural Pennsylvania town where there isn’t much to do. Predictably, she’s bored. 20 years old and employed as a waitress, she is sitting in a doctor’s office waiting to find out if her life is going to change radically or not. While she waits, she reads her diary and the events of the last two years begin to flit through her mind. Her relationships with her boyfriend Daniel (Wheeler), her mother Joan (Taylor) and her father (Robert) are at the forefront of how she got to where she is at this very moment.

Phillips decides to tell his story in an unconventional way, using a barrage of visuals that employ all sorts of techniques from over-saturated colors to grainy home movie-like interludes to still photographs, soft focus and occasionally footage that doesn’t make sense. We see Lissa over time as somewhat manipulative and often difficult. Like many women her age, she makes plenty of bad choices (and occasionally some good ones). There is enough angst in her to fill one of the Great Lakes and then some; Phillips has stated that he wanted to essentially create a John Hughes coming of age movie for the 2010s. Molly Ringwald was obviously not available.

The images are jarring and distracting; there’s actually a pretty good story to be told here and maybe even some insight to be had but it gets drowned out by Phillips’ need to call attention to himself as a director. Shaw actually delivers a fairly compelling performance but it gets lost amid all the white noise. The electronic soundtrack also contributes to the chaos.

I really can’t recommend this at all. I spent most of the film wanting to be anywhere else but where I was and when the final credits started running, I felt relief more than anything else. I hate being snarky like this; I will allow that the movie didn’t connect with me in the least and that it’s quite possible – and maybe even likely – that it will connect with others. I hope that those folks find this movie. For my part, I really hope that Phillips takes to heart this advice; it’s not the singer, it’s the song. In other words, it’s not about the direction; it’s about the movie. The sad thing is that there was a decent story in here; it’s just too much effort to pluck it out from all the distractions going on.

REASONS TO GO: Shaw gives an effective performance.
REASONS TO STAY: I had a lot of trouble connecting with the film. Too many images become too distracting. One gets the sense that Phillips is trying to reinvent the wheel.
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity, drug use, some violence and sexual content.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The soundtrack is by the Aussie-American indie rock group Liars and is their last recorded work after breaking up amicably in 2017.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: iTunes
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/17/18: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Collected Works of Lars von Trier
FINAL RATING: 2/10
NEXT:
Men on the Dragon

Liverleaf (Misumisô)


The phrase “pure as the driven snow” doesn’t apply here.

(2018) Horror (T-Joy) Anna Yomada, Hiroya Shimizu, Rinka Ôtani, Rena Ôtsuka, Kenshin Endô, Masato Endô, Kazuki Ōtomo, Masahiro Toda, Seina Nakata, Minori Terada, Ayaka Konno, Arisa Sakura, Reiko Kataoka, Aki Morita, Sena Tamayori. Directed by Eisuke Naitô

Bullying is sadly not an unusual thing, whether in American  high schools or Japanese ones. There always seems to be a human urge for the strong to prey on the weak.

Haruka Nozaki (Yomada) falls into the latter category. A transfer into a small rural middle school from a larger city, she doesn’t fit in and is preyed upon mercilessly by a gaggle of girls led by the diffident Queen Bee Taeko (Ôtani) who for a short while was friends with Nozaki. Now, she gives tacit approval to her followers in making the life of Nozaki a living hell.

Things start off typically; knocking her book bag out of her hands, throwing her shoes in a mud pit, knocking her into the mud-type things. Then things begin to escalate; a dead crow is put in her locker and she is jabbed with needles. Her mother (Kataoka) and father (Toda) have a meeting with Nozaki’s teacher (Morita) who is strangely cowed by the other students; they call her “vomit teacher” because she throws up when the misbehaving gets extreme. In any case, the teacher informs the parents that the school is closing at the end of the term and there’s no sense in opening up a can of worms. Nozaki’s parents take the extraordinary step of keeping their daughter home from school.

Infuriated, the bullies send Rumi (Ôtsuka) – a girl with a stammer who would be next on the list to get their full attention – to get Nozaki back to school but Nozaki knows all too well that things will end badly for her if she goes to school, so she declines. Rumi, wanting to fit in with the ugly bully crowd, professes that she wants Nozaki to die. Some of the boys in the group decide to see how serious she is. In the meantime, Nozaki has a friend in Aiba (Shimizu) who is more than a little interested in photography and is, like Nozaki, a transfer student. He lives, for some unexplained reason, with his grandmother.

But Nozaki’s refusal causes things to spin completely out of control from there as the bullies go way, way, way over the line. Tragedy results and Nozaki is left a shell of herself, a ghost floating in the winter snow. Even then the bullies won’t leave well enough alone and Nozaki finally stands up for herself – and she’s holding a knife when she does.

The film, based on an ultraviolent manga, is the latest teen bully horror film from Naitô who has already directed a couple of movies with comparable themes. Some critics have labeled this a revenge film and I’m not really sure if that’s accurate; certainly Nozaki’s actions later in the film could be construed as seeking vengeance but I get more of a sense that it is self-preservation she’s after. She’s pushed to a wall and like any cornered animal, fights her way out.

Yomada is excellent as the timid, cringing wallflower turned psycho killer. Her change from one extreme to the other is totally believable and while the gore and mayhem may be somewhat over-the-top, it is a comic book adaptation folks and one would expect an exaggerated amount of violence and bloodshed in that situation. In fact, some of the most brutal scenes in the movie are so beautifully photographed by cinematographer Hidetoshi Shinomiya that you almost feel guilty enjoying the images he captures.

The movie could have used some judicious editing; the climax is a long time coming and when it arrives it’s almost a relief. I was left wishing it had come sooner but again, like most Americans I have the attention span of a loaf of bread. It felt like Naitô was taking a bloody long time to get to where he was going. I haven’t read the manga so I’m not entirely sure how faithful the film is to it but it feels like there was some fat that could have been trimmed.

As scary movies go this is more visceral than spooky. The scares are mainly in the gore and violence, not so much from any build-up from tension; think of it as a slasher movie in a Japanese school girl uniform (you know, the Sailor Moon outfit) and there you have Liverleaf, which is a local flower that blooms to usher in spring and is a big deal to Nozaki’s photographer friend, her only friend and maybe more than that. This isn’t going to scare the bejeezus out of you but then again, not every horror film has to.

REASONS TO GO: Some of the scenes of brutality are filmed in a strangely beautiful manner. Anna Yomada delivers a killer performance (literally).
REASONS TO STAY: The movie is way too long.
FAMILY VALUES: There is violence and disturbing images, gore, profanity and scenes of brutal bullying.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie is based on the Misumisô manga by Rensuke Oshikiri.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/16/18: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet: Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Heathers
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
1/1

Microhabitat (So-gong-nyeo)


Cleanliness is next to godliness.

(2017) Dramedy (CGV Arthouse) Esom, Jae-hong Ahn, Duk-moon Choi, Jin-ah Kang, Sung-wook Lee, Gook-hee Kim, Jae-hwa Kim. Directed by Jeon Go-Woon

The economics for those living on the bottom rung of the working class are fairly bleak. As inflation brings the price of goods and services up, the pay for workers isn’t keeping pace. The results are that we are working longer and harder for less. This is true pretty much on a global scale.

In Seoul, Miso (Esom) is a 31-year-old housecleaner who lives in a tiny one-room unheated apartment in a dodgy part of Seoul. She seems ok with her lot, so long as she has the three things that make her life bearable; cigarettes, whiskey and her boyfriend Hansol (Ahn), an aspiring manhwa artist. However, new taxes bring the price of cigarettes up to a level that makes her right, meticulously managed finances even tighter. On top of that when her apologetic landlord is forced to raise her rent, rather than give up smoking and drinking, Miso chooses rather to be temporarily homeless.

It is winter and Seoul can be a very cold place in winter. Miso must rely on her friends to put her up, but each one has their own lifestyle and their own set of circumstances. Once all somewhat bohemian college students (some of whom were bandmates of Miso back in the day), they have all exchanged their ideals for conformity and in some cases, creature comfort. Each apartment she visits has its own habitat and the dweller within their own needs. Miso tries to meet those needs as best she can. She is unfailingly cheerful and even as she listens to her friends rant about their problems never feels compelled to judge. Neither do her friends feel compelled to ask Miso about her circumstances.

In many ways Microhabitat feels like it takes its cues from American independent films with the sometimes eccentric characters, the low-key comedy and the subtle message delivered in the slice of life presented for consumption. If this film had been made in America, Greta Gerwig would undoubtedly have been cast as Miso and the movie would have been set in New York. The difference here to an American version is the Korean traditional values, some of which aren’t all that alien to American audiences; the marginalization of unmarried women (particularly at Miso’s age), the rendering to near-invisibility of those working service jobs, the importance placed on wealth and productivity. Well, maybe the American film would have been set in SoHo and have the Miso character hanging out in bars where indie rockers played desultory sets for young hipsters. None of that happens in this film.

But of course there is no American version – yet – and judging Microhabitat on its own merits is not really very hard. Miso is a somewhat difficult character to get a real handle on because writer-director Jeon Go-Woon has the character play things close to the emotional vest. Yes, Miso is cheerful and helpful and maybe a little bit stubborn but we rarely see anything resembling despair except near the end when her boyfriend, tired of living hand to mouth, decides to accept a job in Saudi Arabia that will take him away from Seoul for two years. Other than those moments, Miso is always accepting, always polite, always giving. She’s not a saint – saints don’t smoke as much as Miso – and she may not have really grown up since college in some ways but she has grown in ways her friends who have essentially “sold out” could never understand.

In a time when most people are just one paycheck away from economic disaster it can be a bit painful to watch the realities of Miso’s financial situation; for some, they may strike a little too close to home. The tone is on the bittersweet side and the comedy fairly subtle but I have to admit that the ending was really charming and did a lot to elevate the movie. While it possesses a few bad habits common in American indie films, Microhabitat is nevertheless charming throughout largely because Esom makes Miso such a delightful character that everyone will want to spend time with.

REASONS TO GO: The tone overall is bittersweet but the ending is a bit of a grace note.
REASONS TO STAY: The economic hardships can be difficult to watch.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Go-Woon is part of a Seoul-based collective of independent female directors called Gwanghwamun Cinema; this is her feature debut.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/15/18: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet: Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Frances Ha
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Liverleaf

The Looming Storm ( Bao xue jiang zhi)


Rainy days and murders always get me down

(2017) Thriller (Century Fortune) Yihong Duan, Yiyan Jiang, Yuan  Du, Chuyi Zheng, Wei Zheng, Lin Zhang, Xianliong Li, Yan Qu, Yujie Su, Chao Sun, Chaofun Fu, Shuo Du, Gi Song, Shaodong Jiang, Qiao Cho. Directed by Yue Dong

1997 was a red letter year for China, no pun intended. It was the year Den Xiaoping, then the president, passed away and a more reform-oriented government went into effect. It was of course also the year Hong Kong was returned to Chinese control after having been in the purview of the United Kingdom for a century.

In that year Yu Guowei (Duan) was the security chief in Smelting Plant #4 in an industrial town in rural China. He has just been given the model employee award for going a year without allowing any petty theft in the plant. Respected by management, liked by his fellow employees, Yu fancies himself something of a detective and when a trio of women turn up murdered in town, he is eager to help the weary Captain Zhang (Du) who doesn’t want Yu’s help at all.

But Yu sees himself as a superior police officer to Zhang and the contemptuous Officer Li (C. Zheng) and believes that solving this case will win him a spot on an actual police force. With his fawning assistant Xiao Lu (W. Zheng) – who insists on referring to his box as “Maestro” – at his side, Yu makes like Sam Spade and looks for the usual suspects or at least the unusual ones. Based on his own instincts – which aren’t that bad – he starts looking for someone taking an unusual interest in female factory workers.

He finds one in a hooded man who has is apparently keeping an eye on the various factories in town. After a foot chase with the hooded man ends badly, Yu resolves to take down his prey and uses former prostitute Yanzi (Jiang) as bait. He sets up the girl, whose aim in life is to open up a salon in Hong Kong, with a salon in the center of town. This despite the fact that Yu, along with almost all of the smelting factory’s workforce has been laid off; the State is getting ready to close the factory as part of China’s modernization and move towards globalization. Yanzi is genuinely very grateful but doesn’t understand why Yu refuses physical affection. There is a palpable air of something tragic building and when the climax finally unfolds, it’s not what we would expect – but tragic nonetheless.

Dong sets the film in an unnamed town in the middle of muddy moors in a place where the sun never ever shines and it rains almost non-stop. This gives the film a noir-ish feel and while there are other elements of noir as well, this isn’t strictly that kind of film. There is a good deal of social commentary going on in the subtle way that Chinese filmmakers insert commentary into their movies.

Duan has the perfect hangdog look that belies his eager beaver attitude although once it becomes evident that he isn’t as good a detective as he thinks he is and his world begins to fall apart the expression becomes a source of pathos. Likewise, Jiang is bright and lively, an absolute refreshing respite from the overwhelming oppressive atmosphere of the film – although that atmosphere is part of what sets this movie apart. This is truly a place where nothing good ever happens and it is evident in the way the residents trudge through the muddy streets, not even bothering to protect themselves from the rain any longer. China is changing and these are the people getting left behind. Like Yu, they all have the certainty in mind that life is nothing but a perpetual disappointment and is something that is to be endured rather than enjoyed. That’s not as rare a mindset as I think we’d all like.

The movie is a little long (nearly two hours) and the ending very drawn out but for all that the pacing, while slow, isn’t necessarily a drawback; I remained enthralled by the story all the way through. This was another of the standout films at this year’s New York Asian Film Festival; it might be a bit dreary in tone but it won’t leave you feeling waterlogged.

REASONS TO GO: While the pace is slow the story is so fascinating you never lose interest. Yihong Duan has the perfect hangdog look. The dreary setting fits the mood perfectly.
REASONS TO STAY: The ending drags on a little bit.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some disturbing images, violence, profanity and sexual content.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Yue Dong has been a cinematographer for most of his career; this is his first foray into directing a full-length feature.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/13/18: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet: Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Se7en
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
NEXT:
Microhabitat

New Releases for the Week of July 13, 2018


HOTEL TRANSYLVANIA 3: SUMMER VACATION

(Columbia) Starring the voices of Adam Sandler, Andy Samberg, Selena Gomez, Kevin James, Mel Brooks, Fran Drescher, Steve Buscemi, Molly Shannon. Directed by Genndy Tartakovsky

After centuries of providing the perfect vacation for the monster community, Dracula is in need of one himself so he packs up his family and heads out on a cruise. As happens on cruises, he finds a romantic connection but as happens to Dracula this is not a connection that may necessarily be what it seems.

See the trailer and video featurettes here.
For more on the movie this is the website.

Release Formats: Standard, 3D
Genre:  Animated Feature
Now Playing: Wide Release

Rating: PG (for some action and rude humor)

Leave No Trace

(Bleecker Street) Thomasin McKenzie, Ben Foster, Jeff Rifflard, Michael Draper. A father and his daughter live off the grid in an urban park in Portland but after they are discovered and brought into a more traditional existence, the dad is anxious to return to his previous way of life. The trouble is, his daughter may no longer be quite as willing to come with him.

See the trailer, clips, an interview and a featurette here.
For more on the movie this is the website

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Drama
Now Playing: Regal Winter Park Village, Rialto Spanish Springs Town Square

Rating: PG (for thematic material throughout)

Skyscraper

(Universal) Dwayne Johnson, Neve Campbell, Pablo Schreiber, Noah Taylor. A wounded veteran, who lost a leg in combat duty and now works as a security specialist, is hired to oversee security at a new technologically advanced skyscraper in Hong Kong. He moves his family to the swanky apartments, but when terrorists set fire to the building, he will have to push himself beyond his limits to save them.

See the trailer, clips, interviews and B-roll video here.
For more on the movie this is the website

Release Formats: Standard, 3D, DBOX, DBOX 3D, Dolby
Genre: Action
Now Playing: Wide Release

Rating: PG-13 (for sequences of gun violence and action, and for brief strong language)

Soorma

(Sony International) Diljit Dosangh, Tapsee Pannu, Angad Bedi, Danish Husain. This is the incredible but true story of Indian field hockey superstar Sandeep Singh who is paralyzed in a freak accident while traveling to the World Cup for the sport. Determined to not only walk again but play competitive field hockey and be a difference maker, all of which his doctors think is impossible.

See the trailer here.
For more on the movie this is the website

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Sports Biography
Now Playing: AMC Universal Cineplex

Rating: NR

Sorry to Bother You

(Annapurna) Lakeith Stanfield, Tessa Thompson, Omari Hardwick, Terry Crews. In the Oakland of an alternate reality, a young telemarketer discovers a magical key to career success which ends up propelling him into a macabre universe he could not have imagined. This Boots Riley-directed fantasy has been getting a strong word of mouth.

See the trailer, video featurettes and a clip here.
For more on the movie this is the website
Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Comedy
Now Playing: Wide Release
Rating: R (for pervasive language, some strong sexual content, graphic nudity, and drug use)

ALSO OPENING IN ORLANDO/DAYTONA:

Damsel
RX 100
Shock and Awe
Thamizh Padam 2

ALSO OPENING IN MIAMI/FT. LAUDERDALE:

The Cakemaker
Chinna Babu
Kadaikutty Singam
On the Seventh Day
RX 100
Siberia
Thamizh Padam 2
Three Identical Strangers
Vijetha

ALSO OPENING IN TAMPA/ST. PETERSBURG:

RX 100
Thamizh Padam 2
Vijetha

ALSO OPENING IN JACKSONVILLE/ST. AUGUSTINE:

Chinna Babu
Kadaikutty Singam
The Young Girls of Rochefort

SCHEDULED FOR REVIEW:

The Cakemaker
Hotel Transylvania 3: Summer Vacation
Skyscraper
Sorry to Bother You
Three Identical Strangers

Beast Stalker (Ching yan)


In Hong Kong action movies, even pedestrian overpasses aren’t safe.

(2008) Crime Drama (Emperor) Nicholas Tse, Nick Cheung, Jing Chu Zhang, Pu Miao, Kai Chi Liu, Ho Man Keung, Jing Hung Kwok, Sherman Chung, He Zhang, Suet Yin Wong, Sum Yin Wong, Kong Lau, Tung Joe Cheung, Simon Lee, Accord Cheung, Ka Leong Chan, Esther Kwan, Si-Man Man, Francis Luk, Sai Tang Yu, Kim Fai Che, June Tam. Directed by Dante Lam

Lives can be changed in the blink of an eye. Being in the wrong place at the wrong time can have devastating consequences, the effects rippling out like a rock thrown into placid waters. Rarely are those ripples pleasant although in time they can turn out to be beneficial but that isn’t often the case.

Hong Kong police detective Tong Fei (Tse) is ambitious and arrogant. He’s chasing a well-known Triad crime boss and has him in his relentless sights. Working with his team whom he sets very high standards for, he manages to get the criminal arrested – only to learn that the guy’s thugs have managed to break him out of custody. Fei personally leads the chase after him along with longtime friend and mentor Detective Sun (Liu). A violent car crash leads to a terrible tragedy in which an innocent little girl is killed. Fei is devastated.

Months afterwards, the prosecutor for the case, Ann Gau (J.C. Zhang) is getting past the grief of losing a child when her surviving child is kidnapped by Hung (N. Cheung), a half-blind assassin who is caring for a paralyzed wife and needs the dough. The guilt-wracked Fei is obsessed with finding the missing daughter despite Ann’s pleas for him to butt out – she has been warned to not involve the police. She agrees to alter the evidence that will put the crime lord behind bars for a very long time; so Fei goes out looking for the girl on his own. Hung is just as desperate to make sure that the girl isn’t found and both men play a game of cat and mouse with a little girl’s life hanging on the outcome.

Like many Hong Kong crime dramas, the plot hinges around a number of coincidences (some might say improbabilities) that require a whole lot of disbelief suspension. How likely is it that the crook would steal the car of his prosecutor who just happened to stop the car she was driving so she could yell at her ex-husband on the phone? And the coincidences don’t end there.

However if you can unwrap your head around those plot points you’ll be treated to a story with plenty of nice twists and turns, maybe one or two you won’t see coming. Nicholas Tse and Nicky Cheung are two of HK’s  best action stars and they are at their best in this movie. The action sequences, particularly the initial car chase that sets everything up, are extremely well done with the aforementioned chase being literally breathtaking.

The story does get a little bit maudlin in places but again that’s pretty much standard operating procedure for Hong Kong action films – is there a manual for these things? – and anyone who is a fan of that genre won’t mind a bit. Dante Lam is one of Hong Kong’s surest action directors and while this wasn’t his very best work, it was certainly one worth reviving. It played the recent New York Asian Film Festival. While I don’t see it listed on any of the standard streaming services, you can find the DVD and Blu-Ray in a variety of places. If you like Asian action, you won’t want to miss this one.

REASONS TO GO: The action scenes are uniformly excellent. The plot is full of lovely twists and turns.
REASONS TO STAY: The camerawork is so aggressive and kinetic it becomes distracting. The story is a little bit maudlin in places.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a whole lot of violence, some mild profanity and a few disturbing images.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie was nominated for five Hong Kong Film Awards in 2009, winning two.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/11/18: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Infernal Affairs
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
The Looming Storm

Rock in the Red Zone


The beauty of music is that it endures no matter the circumstances.

(2014) Documentary (The Orchard) Avi Vaknin, Laura Bialis, Robby Elmaliah, Kubi Oz, Micha Biton, Haim Uliel, Yoav Kutner, Noah Badein, Itai Avitan, Hagit Yaso, Lidor, Yossi Klein Haleui, Vishayahu Maso, Dr. Adrianna Katz. Directed by Laura Bialis

 

It is sometimes in these chaotic times a sad fact that the American left often wags its collective fingers at Israel for their treatment of Palestinians on the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. There are plenty of really good documentaries that cover this subject. There aren’t many however that look closely at everyday Israelis coping with the bombs that are sent over on makeshift rockets called Qassams. Rock in the Red Zone has the distinction of being one of the very few.

Bialis became fascinated with Sderot, a small town of 20,000 on the western edge of the Negev desert that is subject to daily rocket attacks by Hamas and Hezbollah. Citizens get 15 seconds warning from a system called Red Alert; when the alarms go off, they drop what they’re doing, leaving their cars in the middle of the road and seek shelter at bomb shelters throughout the town and environs. They leave their windows open so that they can hear the warnings and escape in time; one of the city’s residents, musician Avi Vaknin remarks that the greatest fatalities occur when those who aren’t used to the way of life in Sderot don’t hear the warning sirens and continue driving on their merry way, unaware that death is rocketing at them from the nearby Gaza strip.

A two week stay made such an indelible mark on filmmaker Bialis that she chose to return for a lengthier stay to find out more ostensibly about the underground music scene (literally; much of the rehearsal and performance takes place in underground bunkers and converted bomb shelters). She moves in with Vaknin who introduces her to the music scene in Sderot which is surprisingly fertile; the band Teapacs which represented Israel in the Eurovision song contest are from there (their lead singer Kubi Oz speaks fondly of his embattled home town). More recently, the winner of Israel’s version of America’s Got Talent came from there.

Most of the residents come from Morocco, Tunisia and Ethiopia; Jews who found their way to Israel following World War II and were discriminated against by the European-based Jews who essentially founded the country. The music of those areas mixed with western Rock and Roll, blues, Klezmer and other musical forms. Much of the music has the kind of immediacy that comes from not knowing when you wake up in the morning if you were going to make it to see the sunset. It’s often quite poignant and very often compelling.

The major misstep that is made by the film is well into it when it becomes obvious that Avi and Laura have become romantically involved. From then on the movie becomes more about their relationship and essentially morphs into a home movie, complete with wedding footage. Bialis is a top-notch filmmaker but she breaks one of the cardinal rules of documentary filmmaking: don’t become the story. When Bialis starts to become the story, the movie falls apart.

That’s a shame too because up until then the movie is very compelling; the courage of the people of Sderot who are almost as angry at their own government for essentially ignoring their plight than they are at the Palestinians doing the bombardment. Even with all the stress and trauma (and make no mistake, every single resident of the town suffers from PTSD bar none – one of the most poignant moments is a woman dissolving into a shaking, shuddering mess during an attack) they find the humanity within them to keep soldiering on, living their lives almost in defiance of those who would seek to disrupt them. You can see the joy in their eyes when a concerted effort of activists brings thousands of ordinary Israelis to downtown Sderot to shop and dine. When you live on the razor’s edge, everything becomes magnified.

When the film concentrates on that message, the movie soars. When it becomes a love letter from the director to her husband, it stumbles. I don’t doubt the depth of her passion for her man nor his for her but it really undermines all the really good work she does up until that point. This is just one example of what happens when the heart rules the mind.

REASONS TO GO: The story is a tribute to everyday courage. The music is surprisingly diverse and effective.
REASONS TO STAY: The film loses focus during the final third.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity, disturbing images of the aftermath of the bombings as well as injured children and some drug references.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie is loosely based on the evacuation of Chinese citizens from the port town of Aden during the Yemen Civil War of March 2015.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Radial
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/10/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 57% positive reviews. Metacritic: 54/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: No One Knows About Persian Cats
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
Beast Stalker

The Blood of Wolves (Korô no chi)


Sometimes you can’t tell the cops from the criminals.

(2018) Crime Drama (Toei) Kôji Yakusho, Tôri Matsuzaka, Gorô Ibuki, Yoko Maki, Yôsuke Eguchi, Hajime Inoue, Megumi, Tarô Suruga, Renji Ishibashi, Takuma Otoo, Kyûsaku Shimada, Junko Abe, Marie Machida, Takahiro Kuroishi, Eiji Takigawa, Pierre Taki, Shun Nakayama, Joey Iwanaga, Tomorô Taguchi, Ken’Ichi Takitô, Tomoya Nakamura, Katsuya, Issei Okihara. Directed by Kazuya Shiraishi

In movies there are actual touchstones; Hitchcock for thrillers, Chaplin for comedies, Ford for Westerns and Scorsese for gangster movies. Scorsese himself was influenced in turn by Asian crime dramas which in its own way is somewhat ironic and circular.

Shiraishi says that the 1973-74 five part series Battles Without Honor and Humanity was his main influence for his work but that in turn was influenced by some of Scorsese’s earlier work such as Mean Streets. This film, based on the novel of the same Japanese name, is set in Hiroshima in 1988 at the height of a gang war. The Odani-gumi Yakuza gang have been in control for 14 years; the Machiavellian leader of the Irako-kai gang (Ishibashi) has cut a deal with the volatile leader (Shimada) of the Kakomura-gumi to retake the territory the Irako-kai had lost – and then some.

Trying to stave off what would be another bloody gang war is a cop as rumpled as the packs of cigarettes he smokes incessantly Shogo Ogami (Yakusho) who has just been saddled with a naive straight arrow partner named Shuichi Hioka (Matsuzaka). They are investigating the disappearance of an accountant from a financial institution that is actually a Yakuza money laundering front. As tensions between rival gangs grow, Ogami – who never met a rule he wasn’t willing to break – utilizes informants including his best friend Ginji Takii (Taki) who is a low-level guy for the Odani-gumi to get closer to the rival gangs. Soon Hioka suspects that Ogami is protecting the Ogami as well as himself – there are rumors that the last gang war ended because Ogami, then a uniformed officer, murdered a top man for the Irako-kai. That has been neither forgotten nor forgiven.

In between chasing down sadistic Yakuza and indifferent bureaucrats, Ogami and Hioka hang out in a bar administered by the beautiful but volatile Rikako (Maki) whose past is key to the last gang war and what is leading to the next. Sake will flow and blood will spill – sometimes in buckets – in this brutal, bloody Yakuza film.

Very often during a movie there will be periods where my interest wanes and my attention will wander a little bit. Not so with The Blood of Wolves – there wasn’t a moment that my attention wasn’t focused to the goings-on onscreen. While there is a fairly large cast of characters and many are essentially disposable Yakuza foot soldiers and cops, the main characters are well-developed and especially veteran actor Yakusho deliver some marvelous performances.

As here in America, the gangster film has fallen on hard times in Japan. Once a staple of their film industry, in recent years the Yakuza film has been relegated to the periphery. This particular one is old school and has that epic quality that the best films of such genre greats as Scorsese and Coppola possessed. That doesn’t mean that there aren’t some good examples of the genre still being made in the Land of the Rising Sun and this is an example of it. It has already screened at the New York Asian Film Festival this year but as the powerhouse Toei studio is behind it there is a pretty good chance further American audiences will get a chance to see it and this is absolutely worth seeing; it is one of the highlights of the Festival this year.

REASONS TO GO: The comparisons to Scorsese are unavoidable in a good way. The story keeps you riveted to the screen. Yakusho gives a compelling performance.
REASONS TO STAY: Some of the violence may be too much for the squeamish.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a ton of brutal violence and some over-the-top gore; there is also plenty of profanity, some nudity, sexual situations and references and drug use.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie is based on a novel that is itself a fictionalized version of a  actual gang war that took place in Hiroshima and the neighboring suburb of Kure.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/9/18: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet: Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Gangster’s Daughter
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
NEXT:
Rock in the Red Zone