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

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Central Intelligence


Black spies matter.

Black spies matter.

(2016) Spy Comedy (New Line/Universal) Kevin Hart, Dwayne Johnson, Amy Ryan, Danielle Nicolet, Jason Bateman, Aaron Paul, Ryan Hansen, Tim Griffin, Timothy John Smith, Sione Kelepi, Dylan Boyack, Thomas Kretschmann, Megan Park, Slaine, Annie Kerins, Nate Richman, Robert Woo, Kumail Nanjiani, Phil Reeves, David Stassen, Rickey Eugene Brown, Kadian Clarke. Directed by Rawson Marshall Thurber

 

When we’re in high school, we have dreams and inspirations – and sometimes nightmares. The people we become are generally not the people we thought we’d be. And as for those who we went to school with, they often turn out much different than we imagined as well.

In high school, Calvin Joyner (Hart) was the golden boy. In fact, his nickname was the Golden Jet. A star athlete, picked the most likely to succeed and going out with the head cheerleader Maggie (Nicolet). He had everything going his way. On the opposite side of the spectrum is Robert Weirdicht (Kelepi), fat and a little bit off-kilter, the target of every bully in school. During a pep rally, he’s dragged naked out of the shower and paraded in the buff in front of the entire school. Calvin, maybe the only kid in school who could stand up for him, does so, covering him with his Lettermans jacket. Weirdicht runs out of the gym and never returns to school again.

Twenty years later, Calvin is not the success he thought he’d be, even though he married his high school sweetheart and is working as an accountant which pays pretty well. His 20 year high school reunion is approaching and he doesn’t want to go. He doesn’t want to kill the legend of the Golden Jet by showing up as a mid-level accountant.

Then he gets contacted by a gentleman named Bob Stone (Johnson) who turns out to be Robert Weirdicht. He asks Calvin if he wants to get together for a drink and although Calvin is reluctant, Maggie insists and so Calvin meets Bob, completely shocked at the way Bob turned out; nearly a foot taller than Calvin and built like a pro wrestler (see what I did there?) which is humiliating in and of itself.

As it turns out, Bob is a bit of a renegade. Okay, he literally is a renegade agent for the CIA. He is being sought after for stealing classified data and murdering his partner (Paul). Bob claims he’s been set up, while the agent in charge (Ryan) is pursuing him relentlessly. Is Bob the hero he seems to be or is he using Calvin in a fiendish plot to get revenge on a world that treated him shabbily?

Well, you should be able to figure that one out without much effort. Central Intelligence is just the latest in a string of spy comedies which feature top comic actors putting themselves through action hero paces. In many ways this is the most promising of the lot because there’s a genuine action hero in the center (Johnson) and quite frankly, he’s pretty adept at comedy as well. Right alongside him is maybe the most popular and successful comic working in 2016.

And quite frankly, these two aren’t the problem. In fact, the two of them are a good reason to go out and see Central Intelligence; their interactions are that good. They make a surprisingly strong comedy team with Hart often playing the straight man role, surprisingly enough. Johnson is outstanding, with his hero-worship and his social awkwardness and his somewhat jaw-dropping eye-popping geekiness. Johnson has oodles of charm and he brings all of it to bear on the audience, who are helpless before it. The dichotomy between him and Hart also proves to be a comedy gold mine.

Sadly, the two are serviced by a plot that is predictable and at times nonsensical. While Jason Bateman has a fairly substantial role as the school bully 20 years later, the other big cameo by Melissa McCarthy is a blink-and-you-missed-it affair. There are plenty of gun fights but very few gunshot wounds, as you might expect from a PG-13 movie.

There is a running gag about the John Hughes classic Sixteen Candles whose references might escape modern audiences (younger viewers might be well-advised to watch that movie before going out and seeing this one) that is pretty funny and constitute some of the most well-written portions of the script. Somewhere, Molly Ringwald is smiling no doubt.

Sadly, those moments are more isolated than I would have liked and the best scenes in the movie are mainly given away in the trailer. Calvin spends way too much time protesting he’s not in, whereas Bob spends too much time being oblivious. You would think that a superspy would be a little bit more savvy.

I think that the studios were hoping this would be the beginning of a franchise and by all rights it should have been. Sadly, the writers went for safe and ended up with a bland, generic comedy that is adequate for its needs but not exciting enough to stir genuine love from the audience. Definitely not a waste of your time, but not time well-spent either.

REASONS TO GO: Hart and Johnson make a fine team. The Sixteen Candles references work well.
REASONS TO STAY: The best moments are in the trailer. Not very inventive.
FAMILY VALUES: Lots of crude and sexually suggestive humor, some brief nudity, plenty of action violence and a smidgen of profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the first time Warner Brothers (who owns New Line) and Universal have jointly distributed a film since 1996 (Twister).
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/15/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 68% positive reviews. Metacritic: 52/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Spy
FINAL RATING: 5.5/10
NEXT: Independence Day: Resurgence

Lucky


Lucky

The happy couple - how lucky!

(2011) Comedy (Phase 4) Colin Hanks, Ari Graynor, Ann-Margaret, Jeffrey Tambor, Mimi Rogers, Adam J. Harrington, Allison Mackie, Tom Amandes, Michelle Davidson, Olivia Sather, Heather Marie Marsden, Sean Modica, Jill Carr, Elizabeth Uhl. Directed by Gil Cates Jr.

 

Love and marriage can be a killer. Compromise and understanding are keys to any relationship, but especially in any marriage, particularly in new ones. Getting to understand your partner in any relationship is the key to making it work.

Ben Keller (Hanks) is a bit of a noodle. He is a quiet, shy sort who works as an accountant. He seems generally nice although a bit socially awkward. He has a crush on the receptionist, Lucy St. Martin (Graynor) and has had since school but has never acted on it, not really. She’s aware of his affections but she is much more pragmatic; she has her eye casting about for men in a different economic strata. Ben is beneath her notice, frankly.

That is, until Ben wins the Iowa State Lotto and over $38 million. Overnight he’s a millionaire and Lucy suddenly sees him as husband material. Soon they are dating and before long, they are married, much to the satisfaction of Pauline (Ann-Margaret), Ben’s mom who had despaired of her shy son ever finding a match.

Lucy may be all about the money and Ben doesn’t seem to be too shy about spending it on her – from building her a dream home to an expensive Hawaiian honeymoon. It is in fact while in Hawaii that Lucy discovers that Ben has been keeping a secret from her and it’s a doozy – mild-mannered Ben is a serial killer and as Lucy looks a little more deeply into this, she discovers that his victims bear a more than passing resemblance to herself.

The director is the son of a Hollywood producer (best known for producing the Oscar telecasts) who is directing the son of an acting legend (Hanks, son of Tom). That really is neither here nor there but it is some interesting trivia. The premise here sounds tailor made for a black comedy directed by the likes of the Coen brothers but Cates comes off as a bit inexperienced here.

This kind of material needs a deft touch, one that is light where it needs to be but unfortunately the direction is mostly heavy-handed. We are hit in the face with an anvil rather than tickled gently with a feather. While the former gets our attention initially, it gets old quickly and eventually leaves us numb. The latter may not necessarily be as attention-getting at first but it stays with us longer for far more pleasant reasons.

Hanks is rapidly getting a reputation for playing nice guys with a dark side (as he does in “Mad Men”) and this might be his quintessential role. He resembles his father in many ways but he is much more of a sad sack than Daddy ever was. He isn’t quite the indelible lead man his father is but he has the DNA for it, not to mention that he adds his own stamp.

Graynor is kind of a cut-rate Renee Zellweger in a lot of ways, particularly in her delivery. She’s kind of a skinny Bridget Jones without the accent here. I get the sense she’s emulating the screwball comedies of the ’30s in the way she makes her character sassy and plucky. It’s not really original in any way but she at least captures the essence of the character nicely.

Veteran character actor Tambor plays a detective who is investigating the disappearance of several young girls. Tambor’s laconic delivery is perfect for the role and he always seems to deliver the goods no matter how small the role (and this one is small but memorable indeed). Ann-Margaret is also a welcome addition. In fact, the cast is pretty solid.

The filmmakers seem to be caught between making a screwball comedy and a black comedy and wind up with neither. There are some great moments (as when Lucy has a frank conversation with Ben’s victims) as well as some that could have been. Unfortunately, this is a movie where it felt like each turn it could have made could have gone better if they’d taken a different direction. Chalk it up to inexperience and hope the next one is better.

WHY RENT THIS: Nice performances from Graynor and Tambor. Competent black comedy.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Lacks consistency.

FAMILY VALUES: There is some bad language, a bit of violence, some sexuality and a couple of gruesome images.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The Hawaii-themed restaurant scene was actually filmed at a zoo exhibit in Omaha.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There’s a music video by David Choi singing “I Choose Happiness” from the movie.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $8,564 on an unreported production budget; no way this made any money.

FINAL RATING: 5/10

NEXT: Thin Ice