I Love Us


What’s not to love?

(2021) Crime (Vision) Katie Cassidy, Danny A. Abeckaser, Robert Davi, David James Elliott, Elya Baskin, Jackie Cruz, Greg Finley, Jasper Polish, Harlow Jane, James Madio, Courtney Mazza, Eliad Nachum, Christian George, Ray Bouderau, Diana Madison, George V. Andreakos, Frank Florio, Diana Davis. Directed by Danny A. Abeckaser

 

Love is mysterious. It can begin in the most unlikely of places. It can take us to the most unlikely of places. There is no telling who we’ll fall in love with. Sometimes we fall in love with people we never in a million years imagined that we could.

Career criminal Sammy (Abeckaser) robs jewelry stores. He’s good at it. He works for his father Harvey (Davi) who himself trod on the wrong side of the law before leaving the grunt work to his son. Sammy is paying off a gambling debt to his Uncle Ira (Baskin), a much more successful mobster. Harvey and Sammy dream of a big score that will allow them both to retire, but so far nothing has turned up that’s even remotely a possibility. After another successful but low-yield heist with his partner Richie (Madio), Sammy takes the bus home where he meets single mom Laura (Cassidy). While it would seem that Sammy and Laura at a glance would be totally mismatched, it’s essentially love at first sight.

The two end up getting married, much to the chagrin of Laura’s older daughter Rachel (Polish) who makes no secret of her disdain for Sammy, and the delight of her younger daughter Audrey (Jane). And for awhile, things seem to be going the way Sammy hoped, although he studiously keeps his real profession a secret from his new family. Then, the opportunity he and Harvey have been waiting for arrives, but it will take planning and efficiency to pull off. However, Sammy is hit by an unforeseen tragedy that changes his outlook on everything, and the crew that are planning the heist may not be as trustworthy as Sammy thought.

This is a combination of a family drama and a heist flick, and I would love to say that Abeckaser works the two together seamlessly, but I can’t. The two plotlines often work at cross-purposes and it doesn’t help that many of the plot points feel arbitrary and somewhat cliché, which is never a good feeling for a movie that is certainly trying to stand out as being unique. There are also an awful lot of moments that can only be classified as maudlin and manipulative, and they do leave you wanting to turn off the movie and move on to other things.

But you have to hand it to Abeckaser for pouring on the Brooklyn charm here; that particular borough of New York always has come off with a certain kind of magic and it’s very much in evidence here. Cassidy, best known as Laurel Lance/Black Canary in the CW comic book-based series Arrow (and perhaps less so for being the daughter of former pop star David Cassidy of the Partridge Family) is extremely memorable in her role here; her screen time may be too brief of necessity, but she does leave you wishing that there were more scenes with her in them. Abeckaser isn’t bad in the lead, but he isn’t as striking.

I do wish the film had taken a few more chances with the script; at times it felt like there was a bit too much plot. More simplicity would have suited the story better and the elimination of some sub-plots might well have made this a better film.

REASONS TO SEE: Oozing with Brooklyn charm.
REASONS TO AVOID: Contrived and maudlin.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity and adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Abeckaser and Elliiott previously appeared together in Lansky.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/15/21: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: They/Them/Us
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT:
Eating Our Way to Extinction

The Fatal Raid


Happiness is a warm gun.

(2019) Crime Action (Well Go USA) Jade Leung, Hidy Yu, Min Chen Lin Andrew Kam Yeung-Wa, Kristy Yeung, Aaron Boggs, Jeana Ho, Michael Tong, Patrick Tam, Sin-Hang Chiu, Elaine Tang, Man-kit Yuan, Jadie Lin. Directed by Jacky Lee

 

The “girls with guns” Hong Kong action film subgenre is pretty much what it sounds like; equal parts action and titillation, sort of like Charlie’s Angels with a bit of an edge and a little more cheesecake. For the most part, that subgenre has fallen by the wayside as the mainland Chinese government, which tends to be a little less lenient towards sexuality in cinema, has essentially become overseers of the thriving Hong Kong moviemaking scene. This movie, directed by veteran Jacky Lee, looks to if not resurrect the subgenre, at least pay tribute to it.

An elite Hong Kong police unit, trying to apprehend a criminal gang in Macau, is ambushed leading to a bloody gunfight that leaves numerous members of the team dead. The police brass, as is often the case, hushed up their own role in botching the raid. Now, 20 years after the event, the surviving participants are haunted by the events of that day. Heading back to Macau for a celebration honoring the heroes of the police force, they are led into an ambush with the same gang. Will history repeat itself, or will justice finally prevail?

The plot here is pretty generic and it isn’t terribly well-developed. Most of the emphasis is on the extended gun battles (there are three of them that take place in the film) and less so on developing the characters. The focus seems to be, strangely enough, on Detective Tam (P. Tam) who despite being the lone male on the team becomes the point of focus here – I imagine the #MeToo movement hasn’t made much headway in China just yet. Tam is a fine actor – don’t get me wrong – but if you’re going to cast someone like Jade Leung, who was one of the mainstays of the genre and a terrific actress in her own right – you should damn well make better use of her. As it is, her presence is so commanding as the police inspector that she still manages to steal the film anyway.

Now, I’m not trying to kid myself – most people are going to see this movie for the action sequences and they aren’t that bad. The problem is, they aren’t that memorable either, which is surprising. I have actually seen the movie that this is a sequel to, and there is far more connection between the films than is usual for sequels in the Chinese movie business, which is also surprising. However, the sequel isn’t going to inspire anyone to run right out and rent the film that preceded it which is a shame, because it’s a much better (and much more fun) movie than this one is. The tone here is grim and a bit of a downer, rather than lighthearted and brain-melting, which is normally what you want out of a Hong Kong action movie. See it for the opportunity to watch Jade Leung at work, but there’s not much other reason to take a chance on this one.

REASONS TO SEE: Jade Leung is a compelling presence.
REASONS TO AVOID: The unmemorable plot really drags in the middle third.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of violence, some sex and a fair amount of profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie is a sequel to Special Female Force.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Microsoft, Vudu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/30/21: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Iron Angels
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Kipchoge: The Last Milestone

Don’t Sell Me a Dog


Out for a ride in the country.

(2021) Crime (Bren Enterprises) Andy Yule, Liadh Blake, Mark Agar, Damien Lumsden, Mark Hampton, Harrison Hampton. Directed by Pauric Brennan

 

One of the wonderful things about what I do is that from time to time, you run into a film that you know nothing about but proceeds to exceed every expectation I might have had. To be honest, most self-distributed films suffer from a number of sins, ranging from clunky dialogue to stiff acting to overcomplicated plots. When you run into a movie that has strong performances, great dialogue and a smartly written script, it is manna from heaven for most film critics.

CD (Agar) and his girlfriend Adele (Blake) are both junkies. CD works for the local crime boss, but he yearns for a fresh start away from the small Irish town he lives in. But getting away requires money and he doesn’t have any. So he decides to rob his boss, Brian (Lumsden) but Brian surprises him in the act. Fortunately, Adele sneaks up on Brian and knocks him out.

The two have to leave and right now. They attempt to carjack Joe (Yule), an older man, but the car is the only thing he has in the world. He won’t part with it, but he agrees to drive them wherever they want to go. So the three embark on the strangest road trip ever through the lovely Irish countryside.

But Brian hasn’t forgotten them, and he’s after the two of them. He has found out that they are in Joe’s car and is looking for them. In the meantime, CD’s paranoia has begun to cause problems, and Adele and Joe have begun to bond. Brian’s hot on their heels. Is there a new beginning waiting in the future for CD and Adele?

The film has a pop to it that comes from a confident filmmaker and given that this was filmed on a microbudget during a pandemic, the accomplishment is all the more impressive. The writing is crisp and real; the actors deliver the lines without making it seem like they’re acting, the opposite of which is a mistake inexperienced actors often make – acting a part instead of inhabiting a role. Yule as Joe and Blake as Adele are particularly impressive, garnering viewer sympathy even though Joe can be a codger at times and Adele is prone to making bad decisions. Agar is also good in the thankless role of the impulsive and often abrasive CD (don’t call him Clarence), while Lumsden gives Brian an affability that is underlined by a cruel and vicious nature that his job requires of him.

The ending works pretty well, although it takes Brennan maybe a little too long to get there; the last ten, fifteen minutes seem a bit padded out and might have used some punching up. Even so, this is a movie that takes you under its wing and weaves an enchantment on you. It is quintessentially Irish, if that makes any sense, but it is still the best way to describe this charming and highly enjoyable film. It is currently enjoying a spot on Plex’s most popular films list and for good reason. Pop on in to Plex or Vimeo and check it out. And Brennan assures me that there will be more VOD outlets for the film in the coming weeks. Do look out for it; this is one you’ll want to see. And if you don’t, away with ye.

REASONS TO SEE: A strong and resonant script. Yule and Blake absolutely command your attention.
REASONS TO AVOID: The ending could have been tightened up a bit.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a fair amount of profanity, some drug use and violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film was shot in eight days between COVID lockdowns in Ireland.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Plex, Vimeo
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/20/21: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Ruthless People
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
CODA

Undercover Punch and Gun


Philip Ng is feeling boxed in.

(2019) Crime (Well Go USA) Philip Ng, Vanness Wu, Andy On, Nicholas Tse, Joyce Wenjuan Feng, Luxia Jiang, Aka Chio, Shuai Chi, Jia Meng, Aaron Aziz, Suet Lam, Carrie Ng, Susan Yam-Yam Shaw. Directed by Koon-Nam Lui and Frankie Tam

 

One of the biggest criticisms of action movies in general is that they often seem to be little more than excuses to go from one big action set piece to another. Plot and character development often go by the wayside, leaving the audience to marvel at the stunts, special effects and so on. That’s not necessarily a bad thing – great action sequences can often be their own catharsis, but I also can’t blame critics who would like to see actioin movies be better. It certainly wouldn’t hurt to develop the plot a little more, or give the characters some depth besides a few cheeky one-liners spouted at the end of a particularly grueling fight scene.

Xiao Wu (P. Ng) is an enforcer for a drug ring but what he REALLY is, as it turns out, is an undercover cop. During a drug deal that goes south, gunfire erupts between rival gangs of cops and gangsters. During the chaos, the boss (Lam) is killed and Wu ends up in charge. He is tasked to take down Ha (On), a smuggler who not only imports drugs but dabbles in the human trafficking trade – about as much as Apple dabbles in computers. Ha is as ruthless as they come, and Wu along with his buddy Tiger (Wu) are definitely in over their heads.

The producers for the film apparently never heard the old aphorism “too many cooks spoil the broth.” There are no less than two directors and seven writers credited on this film, and it shows. There is an inconsistency in tone that is maddening as the movie goes from slam-bam action to slapstick comedy to dark social drama often within the same scene. I get that Asian cuisine often has a multitude of layered flavors, but that doesn’t always work for movies.

The characters don’t always act as you’d expect which can be refreshing so long as there’s a logic to it. When Wu’s girlfriend is kidnapped, one wonders about the girl; she isn’t in much of the movie until the end where she basically exists in order to be rescued. The saving grace here is that the action sequences, particularly the fights, are really, REALLY good. Ng, who doubled as fight choreographer, is a natural and could well be the next big international action star to come out of the Far East. He has a brooding presence, but doesn’t handle the comedy quite as well.

Then again, the comedy here is mainly of the low-brow variety and often brings the movie to a screeching halt. The comedy is largely centered around Tiger and while Asian audiences tend to appreciate a broader sense of humor than American audiences do, the jokes here are largely painfully unfunny, as when the baddie wips out his cell phone and tells the hero “There! I unfriended you!” Take that.

Sometimes the action sequences are all you really need to make a movie worthwhile, but the sometimes-painful comedy breaks really do bring the movie down overall. There is also a jazzy score that is wildly inappropriate for the film; the movie just isn’t noir enough for it. Action fans, particularly those who love the martial arts films of Asia, are going to flip for it. Also, keep an eye our for Ng – he could be a household name a few years from now.

REASONS TO SEE: There are some nifty action sequences.
REASONS TO AVOID: The wild shifts in tone (particularly the generally unsuccessful attempts at comedy) drag the film down overall.
FAMILY VALUES: There is quite a bit of martial arts violence, as well as some drug content.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Originally released under the title Undercover vs. Undercover.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Hi-Yah, Microsoft, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/22/21: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Infernal Affairs
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Bullied

Tomorrow’s Hope


Hope is a warm hug

(2021) Documentary (Abramorama) Jackie Robinson, Jalen Rayford, Crystal, Jamal, Mayor Lori Lightfoot, Aija Larry, Portia Kennel, Brenda Eiland-Williford, Emma Gonzalez, Anita Harvey Dixon, Manuel Oliver, Elishaba, Jamie, Bridgette, Asia. Directed by Thomas A. Morgan

 

Escaping poverty can sometimes seem an insurmountable task. Those caught in its clutches are busy just trying to survive; making headway to get out is almost impossible. Many take the easy way out of violence and crime. Most agree the best way out is through education, but often those neighborhoods who need it most are also neglected the most, particularly when it comes to early childhood education. Poor kids getting a head start? Who’s going to pay for that?

In Chicago, the poorest neighborhood in America was located in the Robert Adams housing project. Also the largest public housing project in America, the massive high rises were riddled with disease, drugs and despair. Elevators never worked and the stairways were places where violence often occurred. Parents often restricted their kids to playing on the ramps outside their apartments.

Neighborhood educators knew there had to be a better way. Many of the parents who were concerned about their kids worked and were desperate for daycare, but couldn’t afford it and even if they could, getting their kids there in back was an unreasonable risk. Putting together a foundation called Ounce of Prevention, these educators established a center right there in the Adams housing project, using an empty apartment as their base. Rather than just babysitting the kids by plopping them in front of a television set, they used the opportunity to help them to learn socialization skills and education through play. When playing outside proved to be a formidable obstacle, they put the kids on busses and took them to a local park.

But this center, known as The Beethoven Project, had a major obstacle to face; the city, tired of the crime and violence that festered in the project, decided to tear them down and replace them with better, safer housing. Of course, in order to do that, they needed to relocate the families to new housing throughout the city. Then, the walls came down.

But the city reneged on their promise to rebuild and the parents found themselves in the same predicament, only now they were scattered all over Chicago’s South Side. Ounce of Prevention took the bull by the horns and built Educare, an early education center geared towards impoverished and at-risk children.

This short documentary (just over 45 minutes long, including a prologue testimonial from Chicago mayor Lori Lightfoot which felt unnecessary) follows three members of the first class at Educare in 2000. All three are getting ready to graduate high school and have big plans; Jamal, a drum line major who has music running in his veins, plans to become a sound engineer. Sensitive Jalen writes poetry to work out the issues that upset her; having been suicidal at one time, she wants to give back to her community ad plans to be a psychiatrist and work in the same South Side neighborhood she grew up in. Crystal, who has a thing for wigs, looks to become a pediatrician after she graduates college, to which all three are attending.

Now, I have a healthy dose of skepticism in my veins. All three young people are articulate and clearly on the cusp of becoming community leaders. I’m sure not everyone who came through Educare is as cinematic as these three, but certainly any educational program would be happy to have three kids like this as alumni, and it doesn’t hurt to highlight success stories for a program that had so many obstacles to overcome, as indeed these kids did growing up – all three have seen gun violence or known a victim of it. Jalen’s brother was murdered when she was young, and as a result when the Parkland students came to march, she marched right along with them (as did Jamal).

The importance of early childhood education is demonstrable, and too few kids in poor neigborhoods have access to it. Programs like Educare, which has branched out to 25 locations around the country, are going to be necessary if this country is going to keep up with global competitors – an educated population is the key to innovation and economic growth. It seems criminal that we choose to squander the opportunity to develop this country’s greatest asset – its young people.

REASONS TO SEE: The three young people that are followed here are inspirational. The obstacles the center had to overcome are daunting. The film is more concerned with the results of the program rather than the nuts and bolts of how it works.
REASONS TO AVOID: The prologue was somewhat unnecessary and a bit long-winded.
FAMILY VALUES: There is brief profanity (one word) and an image of a body being wheeled out of the Robert Adams housing project.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Every one of the kids enrolled in the first Educare class graduated from high school.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Virtual Cinema
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/9/21: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Starting at Zero
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT:
Stateless

Deliver Us From Evil (Daman akeseo guhasoseo)


It is twilight for a professional killer.

(2020) Crime (Well Go USA) Jun-min Hwang, Jung-jae Lee, Jung-min Park, Moon Choi, Hakuryu, Park Myeong-hoon, Dae-hwan Oh, Tomonori Mizuno, Young-chang Song, Kosuke Toyohara, Hiroaki Hirakawa, Ito Keitoku, Ken Kurahara, Atsundo Maruyama, So-yi Park. Directed by Won-Chan Hong

 

For an action film to be successful, it doesn’t have to be particularly original, although that certainly helps. When an action movie is well-thought-out, well-choreographed and well-paced, a lack of imagination can be forgiven.

In-nam (Hwang) is a contract killer who used to be a cop. He has just finished his last job before retiring to Panama to live on a quiet beach, but that is not to be. For one thing, the last man he killed, a yakuza named Goreda (Toyohara) has a vengeful brother named Ray, who is better known as Ray the Butcher (Lee). You really don’t want someone named “The Butcher” mad at you, particularly when that person is muscle for the yakuza.

Worse still, it turns out that an ex-girlfriend (Choi) has died and her young daughter Yoo-min (S-y Park) has been kidnapped by human traffickers and taken to Bangkok. In-nam is not helping out because he’s a particularly good guy; he is about as stone cold as they get, but he does have some skin in that particular game. With raving lunatic Ray chasing the ice-cold In-nam, you can imagine that sparks will fly when the two meet.

And sparks do fly. Action fans will be pleased to know that this is as gripping an action movie as you’re likely to see this year, with well-staged martial arts fights and some spectacular action sequences that would do a Hollywood big-budget summer tentpole film proud. This is the kind of movie that doesn’t lack for entertainment.

It also doesn’t lack for action stars. Hwang and Lee are two of South Korea’s biggest stars; they haven’t been in a movie together in eight years, but their chemistry is undeniable. They work really well together, and Hwang does the taciturn, brooding killing machine about as well as anybody, although in the Bangkok heat the man sweats like a politician in front of a grand jury.

Where the movie is lacking is in plot. There is nothing here in terms of story that you haven’t seen before, and sometimes in better movies. How many retiring hit man movies have we seen even this year, where the retiree is drawn back into the business unwillingly? One place where the movie is a little different is that there is a transgender character, Yoo-Yi (J-m Park) who plays In-nam’s translater and girl Friday in Bangkok, where she hopes to make enough money for her gender reassignment surgery. While she’s mostly there for comic relief, surprisingly she is played as more sympathetic than you’d expect, and who ends up being the most likable character in the movie with the possible exception of the utterly adorable Yoo-min.

The movie was one of the top grossing films in Korea last year, having just finished production before the pandemic hit and was one of the few major releases in that country in 2020. With big budget Hollywood movies beginning to peek out from out of their quarantine, this might end up being lost in the shuffle which would be a shame; it is actually quite entertaining and a must for action fans who like their movies at break-neck speed.

REASONS TO SEE: Some spectacular action sequences. Hwang has the surly action hero thing down pat.
REASONS TO AVOID: Somewhat unoriginal.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a truck full of violence and gore (much of it brutal) and some profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the second time that Hwang and Lee have appeared in the same action film.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, DirecTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Microsoft, Redbox, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/28/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Taken
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
An Amityville Poltergeist

Two Gods


A tisket, a tasket, I’ll teach you to make a casket.

(2020) Documentary (CNN) Hanif Muhammad, Furquan Maynard, Nazir Dowell, Rashed Reece, Joann Maynard, Keerah Davis, Barbara Campbell, Jayne Hodge, Khadija Samad, Tyler Hodge. Directed by Zeshawn Ali

 

Poverty and racial injustice make a wicked one-two punch. We have been watching in horror as thousands of young black men have fallen prey to it, destroyed by despair, drugs and crime. It is no easy feat to turn away from what appear to be easy – or sometimes, only – solutions.

But Hanif Muhammad did manage to break the cycle for himself. As a young man, he made plenty of wrong choices, and paid the price, ending up incarcerated. However, he found Islam and his new faith enabled him to turn down a righteous path. He got himself a trade, building caskets and conducting funeral rites for his fellow Muslims in the mean streets of Newark, New Jersey.

He hoped to show a couple of other kids from the neighborhood that life didn’t have to be an inevitable spiral into death. He took 12-year-old Furquan Maynard and 18-year-old Nazir Dowell under his wing, both boys without fathers, to give them an example of a better way.

But it isn’t easy. Farquan’s mom has a boyfriend who beats up both her and her son, and she seems unwilling or unable to do anything about it. Nazir has already had brushes with the law and if he can’t make some sort of correction is liable to wind up in one of Hanif’s caskets. It also must be said that Hanif’s grip on sobriety and stability is fragile at best; temptation bedevils him at every turn and he is one bad choice away from losing everything he’s built.

This searing black and white documentary is a stark slice of the streets, with all the positive and negative that it implies. We see the obstacles these young boys are up against, how so many of the men in the neighborhood have wound up dead too young or in jail too long. There aren’t a lot of talking heads here; this is mainly a stream of consciousness type documentary a la Erroll Morris, and while from time to time it feels that the Ali loses the focus of his story, for the most part his movie keeps viewers locked into a story that could be goingon anywhere in America that has neighborhoods that are under siege from that one-two punch.

Hanif is a flawed man, but he is charming in his own way, dancing to hip hop music as he works on his caskets in the shop he works in. His faith is undeniable, and one thing the movie might accomplish is to allow people to see Islam in a different light; all we ever tend to see is fanatics foaming at the mouth for a holy war, terrifyingly ignorant of the truth that there is nothing holy about war.

These aren’t those sorts. They are people, just like thee and me, who only want to live their life with dignity and perhaps, the potential to prosper. But these particular people have more obstacles to overcome than most, and it isn’t always sunshine and light. Some of this movie is grim indeed and I’m not talking about the images of dead bodies being prepared for burial. Ali has crafted a movie that is real and open and honest and informative. This is an outstanding work from a director who is someone to keep a sharp eye on for the future.

REASONS TO SEE: Hasif is an engaging subject. A real slice of the streets.
REASONS TO AVOID: Meanders a little bit.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity as well as images of corpses being prepared for burial.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film debuted at the 2020 edition of the Hot Docs festival in Toronto.
BEYOND THE THEATER:/span> Virtual Cinema
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/14/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Princess of the Row
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
The Djinn

Ash is Purest White (Jiang hu er nü)


A loaded gun will get everybody’s attention.

(2018) Drama (Cohen Media Group) Tao Zhao, Fan Liao, Yi’nan Diao, Xiaogang Feng, Casper Liang, Zheng Xu, Yibal Zhang. Directed by Zhangke Jia

Qiao (Zhao) is the girlfriend of gangster Bin (Liao) and as such commands a position of high status in Datong, the provincial city in which she lives. When her boyfriend is attacked by a gang of vicious, bold youths she fires a gun into the air to stop the violence. She ends up being the one arrested for possession of an illegal firearm but despite the police interrogation, she doesn’t give up her boyfriend (it’s his gun). She’s sentenced to five years in prison. When she is released, Bin is nowhere to be found – in fact none of those who were part of the Jiang hu, the fraternal order of the underground who follow a rigid code of loyalty are to be found either. She hears that Bin has left the criminal life and has a new girlfriend; she sets out to find him, trying her best to survive in the meantime. Eventually she does find him and he is a different person as is she; therefore, they part and she heads back to Datong where it all started.

This latest film from virtuoso director Zhangke Jia takes Chinese gangster movies and turns them into a sprawling epic, but not in the sense of a Godfather film. This is more of an emotional epic that follows Qiao through her journey through triumph, betrayal, vindication and disappointment. As China goes through enormous changes in the 17 years in which this film takes place, so do the characters try to adjust – not always successfully. That’s kind of a hallmark of Jia’s films as is Zhao, his real-life wife who stars in many of his films. She is extraordinary here.

Some American viewers may not have the patience for a film like this; the pacing is very deliberate throughout and although there are some well-choreographed fight scenes and moments of vivid wonder, for the most part Jia is content to simply let things unfold at their own pace. Nevertheless, this is a wonderful movie that while not Jia’s best is certainly not a disappointment in the least.

REASONS TO SEE: There is an epic feel to the entire film. Zhao delivers a tremendous performance.
REASONS TO AVOID: The movie is slow-moving particularly throughout.
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity and some violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Jia pays tribute to John Woo by utilizing the theme song from The Killers throughout the film.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/4/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews: Metacritic: 79/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Mr. Six
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
Sorry Angel

A Violent Prosecutor (Geomsawejeon)


They're talking about him again.

They’re talking about him again.

(2016) Crime (Showbox) Jeong-min Hwang, Dong-won Kang, Jin-mo Joo, Byeong-ok Kim, Eung-soo Kim, Hong-pa Kim, Won-hae Kim, Sung-min Lee, Ji-hwan Park, Sung-woong Park, So-yul Shin. Directed by Il-Hyeong Lee

NYAFF

We live in an era of corruption and graft. Of course, every era to date has had such qualities to it. When justice is twisted upon itself, all that is left is vengeance.

Byun Jae-wook (Hwang) is a prosecutor, and not just an adequate one. He has an extensive knowledge of the law that stems from his intense love of the law. He will do whatever it takes to put criminals behind bars where they belong, which sometimes leads him to some questionable interrogation tactics in which he literally beats confessions out of suspects.

At an environmentalist protest of a planned development at an important bird sanctuary in Korea, a group of outsider thugs come in and initiate a confrontation with the police. One of their number is arrested after assaulting a police officer and is taken to Byun for questioning. The suspect dies mysteriously while in custody and Byun is charged with murder. Byun claims that the suspect was an asthmatic and that his inhaler had malfunctioned; however, there are no records of the suspect having asthma. Byun’s boss, Kang Yeong-sik (E-s. Kim) who has political aspirations, advises Byun to plead self-defense. However, that strategy fails miserably despite Kang’s reassurances and Byun realizes, belatedly, that he’s been framed.

In prison, he is at first a target for regular beatings – he had personally put away many of the prison’s residents. However, his knowledge of law helps a couple of guards and they make sure that Byun is untouchable and he becomes a gang unto himself. When con-man Han Chi-won (Kang) is imprisoned, Byun sees an opportunity. He befriends the narcisstic young man and prevails upon him to do Byun a favor if Byun can get him released early. Thus begins a deadly game in which Byun and Kang are the players and Han is caught in between. Byun will stop at nothing to prove his innocence, but can he truly trust the amoral Han?

One of the things that is most delightful about this movie is the various influences on it. It’s a prison movie that has a lot of similarities to The Shawshank Redemption as well as a number of 90s-era action B-movies starring the likes of Stone Cold Steve Austin and Dolph Lundgren. There are also elements of such classics as The Sting as well as the retro-hip score and look of the Oceans trilogy.

Lee deftly weaves together all these disparate elements and we end up with a taut crime thriller with heavy comedic overtones. The movie is fast and fun for the most part, and Han – a leading teen idol in Korea who gets the teen girl crowd over there sighing expressively – provides some occasionally over-the-top but surprisingly solid comic relief.

More to the point is Hwang, a craggy actor who is one of Korea’s very best. In many ways the equivalent to Robert De Niro, he has done a lot of gangster films in the past including New World (2013) which is justly considered by some to be the Godfather of Korea. Byun is a complex character, one who has had issues with violence in his past but has come to regret some of his actions, now that he has effectively seen how the other half lives. Hwang commands the screen like a boss whenever he’s on and quite frankly from this point over I’ll go out of my way to see anything he’s in.

The movie runs a bit over two hours and for the most part, you don’t notice that it’s a bit long for this kind of film. Those who have trouble staying in one place for two hours might have some issues with it, but film buffs are going to feel like scarcely any time has passed. This might well be the find of this year’s New York Asian Film Festival. It doesn’t have American distribution yet, but hopefully it’s huge success in Korea will lead to at least some sort of distribution deal here. I hope so; it deserves to be seen by a lot of people.

REASONS TO GO: Hwang and Kang make an effective team. The film combines a number of different genres to make a satisfying stew.
REASONS TO STAY: May be a little too long for the attention-challenged.
FAMILY VALUES: A bit of violence and foul language.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie made $22 million on its opening weekend and is currently 16th on the all-time Korean box office chart.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/6/16: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Shawshank Redemption
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: Mr. Six

Now You See Me


 

Isla Fisher knows how to make a splash.

Isla Fisher knows how to make a splash.

(2013) Action Crime Thriller (Summit) Jesse Eisenberg, Isla Fisher, Woody Harrelson, Mark Ruffalo, Morgan Freeman, Dave Franco, Michael Caine, Common, Melanie Laurent, Michael J. Kelly, David Warshofsky, Jose Garcia, Jessica Lindsey, Caitriona Balfe, Stephanie Honore, Stanley Wong, Laura Cayouette, Adam Shapiro, Justine Wachsberger, Conan O’Brien. Directed by Louis Leterrier

Magic is the art of misdirection and trickery. You fool the other person into thinking that you’re doing something impossible when all you’re really doing is managing the environment. Of course the bigger the trick, the more completely you must manage the environment.

The Four Horsemen are a magic act that is the toast of Vegas, playing sold out shows at the Vdara Hotel and Casino. Only a year prior however Daniel Atlas (Eisenberg) was an arrogant street magician with ambition (although he’s kept the arrogance), Merritt McKinney (Harrelson) was a mentalist who’d fallen from grace who has had to stoop to using his powers of observation for shaking down rubes, Henley Reeves (Fisher) was an underground magic act who had broken away from being Atlas’ assistant but found that the male-dominated magic world was no less easy on her own, and Jack Wilder (Franco) spent as much time picking pockets as he did doing sleight of hand. All four of them had received mysterious invitations via Tarot card – but sent by whom?

That didn’t matter much. Backed by insurance magnate Arthur Tressler (Caine), they’ve hit the big time but for their new show, they have a hell of a finale; they send an audience member (Garcia) seemingly by teleportation to the vault of his Paris bank; once there he turns on a switch that sends a skid full of Euros through a vent shaft to rain down on the audience at the Vdara.

Except that the bank was actually robbed and this seemingly was no trick. This puts grouch FBI agent Dylan Rhodes (Ruffalo) on their trail. He doesn’t really want any help but he gets some anyway – from comely Interpol agent Alma Dray (Laurent) and professional debunker Thaddeus Bradley (Freeman) who was once a magician himself but has found it more lucrative to debunk the illusions of his former colleagues on DVDs.

While the Horsemen are questioned, there really isn’t any way to pin anything on them. After all, they have a theater full of witnesses that they were in Las Vegas and only the insistence of the audience member that he was there at all – and the evidence of the audience member’s signed ticket stub in the empty vault. But it’s not possible that he could travel to Paris instantaneously, is it?

Dylan doesn’t think so. With the Horsemen advertising an even bigger trick in New Orleans, the FBI set to tailing them, but how do you keep your eyes on people trained to misdirect and trick you into think you’re seeing something that you’re actually not? And who is it that called the group together? And most importantly, what is the end game?

Leterrier established his career with the Jason Statham-led Transporter movies which were slick action-packed thrillers of an automotive nature (I thought at the time that they were even better than the Fast and Furious movies although the last two have since changed my mind). Here, he goes back to his roots following a couple of big effects-laden Hollywood movies (although this is still a Hollywood movie with effects), taking on a simpler storyline which is at the same time more complex.

There is a nice twist at the end which most won’t see coming but the movie is overall kind of uneven. The magic trick sequences are stunning and are some of the best moments in the movie. Ruffalo who is moving up the Hollywood ladder just about takes this movie over. My interest became more piqued every time he was onscreen. Not that the Horsemen are slouches (I did appreciate the banter between them) but I found myself drawn to him and his character. Freeman and Caine are two of my favorite actors but Caine is on so briefly that if you blink you’ll miss him (wasting an opportunity in my opinion) and Freeman kind of phones it in.

The actors perform some nifty tricks but their big elaborate ones are mainly established with CGI which is kind of disappointing; like the magic-themed The Incredible Burt Wonderstone, there are some pretty neat illusions but that movie performed them with practical effects rather than visual and the movie is better for it.

This is the kind of movie Da Queen adores, one with a puzzle set before an audience that isn’t easily solved. That it involves magicians is an extra added attraction for her (she loves magic), so she found this more to her liking than I did (she’d have probably given it a 7.5/10 which is higher than the rating I eventually gave it). I can see her point; the movie is clearly entertaining and accomplishes what it set out to do. I could have used with less car chases and less police procedural and a little more emphasis on the characters of the magicians themselves – they are so aloof for most of the movie that they become as well-rounded as mannequins. It would have been a much better trick to turn them into interesting characters instead.

REASONS TO GO: Ruffalo is marvelous. Magic tricks are nifty. Fairly clever twist.

REASONS TO STAY: Relies too much on CGI.

FAMILY VALUES:  There are a few action sequences that might be a bit too intense for the very young, as well as a few bad words here and there and a bit of sensuality.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: During shooting, Caine fell asleep in his dressing room and didn’t hear the director call a wrap for the day. He awoke in pitch black and remained until his cries for help were heard the next morning.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/8/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 46% positive reviews. Metacritic: 50/100; pretty mediocre numbers.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Prestige

FINAL RATING: 6/10

NEXT: After Earth