The Emperor’s Sword


Things are looking up.

(2020) Martial Arts (Well Go USA) Xu Chang Chao, Yilin Hao, Qin Chu Ming, Feng-bin Mou, Ruoyao Pan, Zhao Qihang, Xiaofei Shi, Qiyu Yang, Xu Zhangchao. Directed by Zhang Yingli

The corruption that comes with the pursuit of power is universal. All cultures have stories, legends and myths concerning the relation between the two. Some stories are meant to be parables; others are meant to stir the blood in one way or another.

More than two thousand years ago, the Qin dynasty of China ruled with peace and prosperity. The emperor had in his possession a sword that gave him the power to rule all of China. He also led the Seven Gentlemen – the Brave, the Wisdom, the Polite, The Virtuous, the Valor, the Vigor and The Wise – don’t ask me hy two of the seven had essentially the same quality. After the Emperor’s ascension to the throne, they retired to the Wind Valley, confident that the land was in safe hands.

But all good things come to an end and when the Emperor died just ten years later, an ambitious nobleman named Zhao Gao takes advantage of the situation and massacres the family and retinue of the Emperor’s son, who happened to be the Emperor’s most loyal general. Only the Emperor’s daughter survived, having grabbed the sword – which had now been split into two with one half entrusted to the general’s care – and ran for her life. She was protected by one of the Gentlemen, who discovered what was happening too late to save the general’s family but soon enough to protect the sword.

The daughter and the Gentleman split up, with one going to assemble the other Gentlemen, and the girl to an inn run by an ally. The sword must be taken to a holy shrine, and a reformed thief known as the Ghost will escort her there, but there are many looking for the girl and the sword – including someone that she never expected to betray her.

Fans of classic Wuxia cinema will want to seek this one out. It kind of fell between the cracks a little bit; it doesn’t have any major action stars in it, and by the standards of better-known films it had a much smaller budget. That doesn’t mean it is any less worthy of attention. There is beautiful cinematography – one battle scene is shot in a foggy bamboo forest, for example and another in a temple perched high on a mountain – and fight choreography that is second to none. While some of the digital effects are less satisfactory by our standards, likely out of budget concerns, for the most part this is a beautiful film to watch with gorgeous costumes and sumptuous set design.

While this has the makings of a historical epic, it is all pretty much a fictional tale told amid real-life events. There was, for example, a real Zhao Gao although he was a palace eunuch, not a military man as depicted here, and he did attempt to seize power following the death of the self-proclaimed First Emperor, although he tried more through intrigue than military might. The First Emperor, by the way, was the one who was buried with the Terra Cotta warriors near the present-day city of Xi’an, and while his tomb has never been excevated, it remains one of the biggest tourist attractions in China.

While the movie debuted on the martial arts-centric streaming channel Hi-Yah! Back in July, it is only now making its way to premium streaming platforms and DVD/Blu-Ray release. While the story, with all the different Gentlemen and other players in the drama, may have a few too many characters to keep up with, this is a frenetically-paced and highly entertaining Wuxia that is well-plotted and at times, poignant enough to make it one of the very best movies you’ll see this year. I’m only disappointed that it was not made available for theatrical release; it would have looked amazing on a big screen.

And for those who have an abiding affection for Asian martial arts films, let me take a moment to show Hi-Yah! some love. It has an amazing library of titles, going back to Bruce Lee and the Shaw Brothers, and covering nearly every type of martial arts movie that you can think of. And at only $2.99/month for a subscription, it’s one of the best bargains in the streaming universe. Cinema365 gives it the highest recommendation possible. To sign up for a subscription, click on the Hi-Yah! link below.

REASONS TO SEE: Wonderful fight sequences. Beautiful cinematography. Some really powerful moments.
REASONS TO AVOID: A few too many characters to keep up with.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of martial arts violence and some suggestive material.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Vandenberg spent several years as a member of the French Foreign Legion before turning to stunt work and acting.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Google Play, Hi-Yah!, Microsoft, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/13/2021: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Journey to the West
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT:
The Business of Birth Control

Halloween Kills


For Michael Myers, Hell is home.

(2021) Horror (Blumhouse) Jamie Lee Curtis, Judy Greer, Andi Matichak, James Jude Courtney, Nick Castle, Airon Armstrong, Will Patton, Thomas Mann, Jim Cummings, Dylan Arnold, Robert Longstreet, Anthony Michael Hall, Charles Cyphers, Scott MacArthur, Michael McDonald, Ross Bacon, Kyle Richards, Nancy Stephens, Diva Tyler. Directed by David Gordon Green

 

Of the iconic screen horror slashers, only Leatherface predates Michael Myers, who made his first appearance in the 1978 classic Halloween. Jason Voorhees, Freddy Krueger, Chucky and Jigsaw all followed in his bootsteps. But forty years have elapsed since his first appearance and Michael is getting a bit long in the tooth, right?

The movie picks up immediately where 2018’s acclaimed reboot left off. Michael (Courtney) has been left to die in the basement of a burning house. Laurie Strode (Curtis), his sister and the babysitter he went after back in 1978, is being rushed to the hospital with abdominal stab wounds. Officer Hawkins (Patton) is on his way there, bleeding from a stab wound in the neck.

But as firefighters battle the blaze, they discover the one cardinal rule of any horror franchise; the killer isn’t quite dead yet. Michael emerges from the flames and immediately takes out a fire brigade, then exits stage left to commit more mayhem, ostensibly to people both random and convenient. He does have a bit of a plan – to go to his old house, currently occupied by gay couple Big John (MacArthur) and Little John (McDonald) who have tastefully decorated the old homestead which means they are due to be shish kabobbed.

At a Haddonfield bar, Tommy Doyle (Hall) shares his recollections of that fateful night. He was the boy Laurie was babysitting, and the night has left him scarred for life. So he doesn’t react well when the news arrives that Michael is still on the loose. Tommy organizes a lynch mob and leads them into the streets to find Michael, chanting ‘Evil dies tonight,” which makes a mighty fine tagline for a movie poster. It turns out to be the most incompetent mob in history, although I do wonder if there’s any such thing as a “competent mob.”

While Laurie’s daughter Karen (Greer) and granddaughter Allyson (Matichak) fret over telling Laurie that the boogeyman still lives, they both grieve for the departed in their own way (Greer has a particularly poignant scene early on in which she washes blood from her hands, scrubbing around her wedding ring). In the meantime, the body count grows and the mob howls for blood (although they occasionally seem to be pointed at the wrong Michael Myers), will a united mob be able to finally put Michael down…or will this Halloween continue unabated?

Well, considering there’s another sequel in the works for next October, I think you can do the math. This is clearly the middle chapter in a trilogy and it has a feel of non-resolution to it. The ending is supposed to be a bit of a shocker (and it is), but what precedes it is a series of kill scenes that really don’t show a ton of originality or flair, with few exceptions (one of the firemen gets eviscerated by his own saw). While Green’s 2018 reboot showed how the 1978 murders affected Strode and her family, the sequel expands to show how it affected all of Haddonfield. That’s admirable, and I think it provides a little social commentary at how deeply stressed out the country has become, but I don’t think that the mob is supposed to be a stand-in for the Capitol insurrection mob. That seems to be a bit of a stretch to me.

The problem with Halloween Kills is a lack of imagination. Forty-odd years on after John Carpenter yelled “action,” slasher movies have run their course and there isn’t a lot of ways to slice and dice a human body. It becomes predictable – and that’s the last thing you want a horror movie to be. Sure, there are plenty of kids who may be new to the genre who might be impressed, but I would be surprised if they hadn’t already seen the classic slasher films by this point and to be fair, this doesn’t compete well with them. It does have its moments, and Jamie Lee Curtis is always a welcome name on a marquee, but she really doesn’t get to do very much, leaving Greer, Patton, Matichak and Hall to do most of the heavy lifting and they do it with varying degrees of success.

So the long and the short of it is that Halloween Kills doesn’t measure up even to the 2018 predecessor. That’s a shame because I can see what the filmmakers were going for; they just didn’t quite get there.

REASONS TO SEE: A respectable attempt to provide some social commentary on the state of things, 2021.
REASONS TO AVOID: A real letdown after the 2018 reboot.
FAMILY VALUES: As you would expect, there’s a ton of violence (much of it gory), some grisly images, a fair amount of profanity and a bit of drug use.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: With her appearance here as Laurie Strode (her sixth), Jamie Lee Curtis passes Donald Pleasance for the most appearances in the franchise as the same character – he appeared five times as Dr. Loomis. The Dr. Loomis who appears in the flashback sequences here is played by Tom Jones Jr., with the voice supplied by Colin Mahan. Pleasance passed away in 1995.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Peacock
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/26/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 39% positive reviews; Metacritic: 42/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Halloween H20: 20 Years Later
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Six Days of Darkness, the Sequel!

Fin


Which is the predator and which is the prey?

(2021) Nature Documentary (Discovery Plus) Eli Roth, Boris Worm, Regina Domingo, Neil Hammerschlag, Gary Stokes, Alison Kock, Chue Lam, Ocean Ramsey, Peter Hammerstadt, Guy Medan, Lashanti Jupp, Michael Muller, Alex Hofford. Directed by Eli Roth

Like millions of others, Eli Roth saw Jaws in his formative years and was scared spitless. He developed a pathological fear of sharks that haunted him whenever he went to the beach. His fears would go on to lead him to become a director of horror films that include Hostel and The Green Inferno.

But he never got over his fear of sharks – that is, until he began to realize that far from the killing machines they were portrayed as in the movies, sharks actually attack humans extremely rarely and generally when they do, they break off the attack immediately when they realize that the human isn’t food. In fact, humans are far more dangerous to sharks than vice versa, to the tune of nearly a billion sharks estimated to have been illegally fished in the last decade alone.

It is one of the largest massacres of a single species in history. There are several reasons for it. Sharks often get caught in gill nets that are meant for other species of fish (they are illegal in most countries); shark liver oil is also used extensively in skin care products, including lotions, sunscreen, lip balm, lip gloss and lipstick – despite the availability of plant-based alternatives. However, one of the largest reasons is the popularity of shark fin soup, a delicacy in parts of Asia. Sharks are often butchered just for their fins, which command a high price. Hong Kong, by itself, processes 17,000 tons of shark fins every year. Often the fins are left to dry on street curbs, sitting in discarded cigarette butts, dog poop and swarms of flies. It’s enough to put you off eating for a week.

You would think that removing sharks from the ecological equation would be a boon for the food chain (or those below sharks anyway) but it is actually not. Areas in which sharks have been all but eradicated shortly become barren of all life. That’s because sharks help maintain ecological balance, acting as marine cops – keeping certain species away from where they don’t belong.

Roth, channeling his newfound respect – and even love – for sharks, decided to make a documentary and with the aid of actor/activists Leonardo di Caprio and Nina Dobrev (acting as executive producers), he traveled the world to see the slaughter in action, partnering with organizations like OceansAsia and Sea Shepherd to find solutions for the problem. He boards a notorious illegal fishing vessel with Sea Shepherd, showing without flinching the horrifying reality of the shark slaughter. The images are pretty graphic and should be viewed with discretion.

Roth has the passion of the convert, and that enthusiasm comes through in every word he utters. At times, the director who has portrayed scenes of people being disemboweled and eaten alive exclaims “That is the worst thing I’ve ever seen” when a shark is clubbed to death in front of him. But already his film is paying dividends; one of the largest shark fishing competitions in the United States was canceled this year, likely due to pressure put on from the film, and Congress is considering legislation that would make the sale of shark fins illegal in the United States.

There are woke reviewers who are criticizing the messenger and throwing out the message because of Roth’s history as a horror director. One sniffed, “He widely condemns women who wear cosmetics which can be made with shark liver oil. These words – coming from a director who helped coin “torture porn” and whose fiction work consistently and degradingly compares makeup-caked bombshells to animals – feel disingenuous at best.” For the record, Roth condemns makeup manufacturers, not the women who wear their products. He urges them to buy shark-free products. And incidentally, his movies tend to be just as degrading to men as well.

If there are some actual knocks for the film it could be that much of the information shared here can be seen in other documentaries, notably the two Sharkwater docs from the late conservationist Rob Stewart, but the footage of the industrial fishing vessels is unforgettable, and Roth’s earnest passion make this a worthy successor to Blackfish.

REASONS TO SEE: Roth is an engaging host. Sobering and sad.
REASONS TO AVOID: May be troubling for the sensitive.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity as well as disturbing images.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Over 100 million sharks are killed in the wild every year (estimated).
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Discovery Plus
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/21/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 89% positive reviews; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Sharkwater Extinction
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
Luca

Stateless


(2019) Documentary (Hispaniola/PBS) Rosa Iris, Juan Teofilo Murat, Gladys Feliz. Directed by Michéle Stephenson

Here in the United States, we grapple with our own race relations. On the left, claims that institutional racism has kept Americans of African descent from achieving their own American dream, whereas from the right equally firm assertions that racism is individual, not institutional and that great strides have been made since the Jim Crow era.

In many ways, racism here has been a subtle presence over the past thirty years, but during the Trump administration, it became more overt. We have, in many demonstrable ways, regressed back in time. However, the racism here is nothing compared to what it is in the Dominican Republic.

In 2013, their Supreme Court handed down an astonishing decision that stripped citizenship from all Dominicans of Haitian descent going back to 1929. That left more than 200,000 people stateless – without a country, without rights. The Dominican Republic shares an island with Haiti; in the Dominican, Spanish is spoken whereas in Haiti the language is French. The Dominicans tend to be lighter-skinned; Haiti is largely populated by those of African descent. The Dominican is relatively prosperous whereas Haiti is impoverished, and what infrastructure had been there was largely reduced to rubble in the earthquake and hurricane that followed it.

The wealthy sugar cane plantations in the Dominican had long imported Haitian labor to do the brutal work in the cane fields, but in 1937, Dominican dictator Rafael Trujillo ordered the army to execute all Haitians inside the Dominican border, and they responded by not only doing that but murdering Dominican citizens of Haitian descent, even Dominicans with no Haitian blood but darker-skinned. Tens of thousands were murdered.

This Canadian-made and financed documentary follows three people; lawyer and activist Rosa Iris, whose primary job is getting citizenship for those whose citizenship was unjustly taken away. She runs for office, hoping to reverse the nationalist trend that has enveloped the Dominican. One of her clients is her cousin, Juan Teofilo Murat, one of the 200,000 affected. He is prohibited from seeing his children and has been living in Haiti, hoping to get his legal status resolved. Finally, there’s Gladys Feliz, a grandmotherly sort who represents the nationalist movement. Hers is the most chilling sequence of all; she seems on the surface to be a lovely and rational person, but then she says things that are simply horrible and clearly racist. For her, Haitians are all about robbery, rape and murder (sound familiar?) and who are out to subvert the island paradise that is the Dominican Republic.

The stories are interwoven with a folk tale-like story of a woman named Moraime, who fled the 1937 massacre. The cinematography for the Moraime sequences are almost dream-like and hauntingly beautiful, as opposed to the stark pictures of the poverty of Haiti and of the Dominican Haitians.

There is a terrifying sequence in which Rosa Iris is driving Juan Teofilo from the Haitian border to Santo Domingo to submit paperwork. Their car is stopped regularly at military checkpoints. Any one of them could result in arrest. We watch mainly through hidden cameras, the tension in the faces of the occupants of the car palpable.

Much of the latter half of the film revolves around the campaign by Rosa Iris to be elected to the national assembly, hoping to bring her activism to the halls of power. Already a target for threats of violence due to her assistance of Haitian-descended Dominicans in getting their citizenship reinstated, now becomes a target for death threats. She is concerned for not only her safety but the safety of her beguiling young son. In all honesty, while her efforts to resolve the injustice politically are noble, we end up spending more time watching her campaign than dealing with the bureaucratic hurdles that face Dominicans of Haitian descent; the meeting that Juan Teofilo has with an apathetic clerk in the records office is one of the most compelling bits in the film. His melancholy face is as memorable as Rosa Iris’ courage and heroism is.

This is a marvelous and chilling film. The United States isn’t quite this bad yet, but we were definitely on the road that leads to what we see here, and we’re not off of it yet (I was thinking that while Gladys Feliz espouses her hateful invective that it was ironic that she would likely be the sort of person that Trump’s policies would have excluded from immigrating to America). The movie, which won best Canadian feature at the recent Hot Docs festival, is also playing Tribeca this weekend. For those who aren’t able to make it to that festival, it will be airing on the wonderful PBS documentary series P.O.V. on July 19th and should be available for streaming after that. This is a movie that those who are passionate about social justice should have on their short list.

REASONS TO SEE: Rosa Iris cuts a heroic figure. The story is compelling and all-too-tragically familiar.
REASONS TO AVOID: The electioneering distracts from the central issue.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some mild profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Following the election, Rosa Iris continued to receive death threats for her support of the Haitian community; she eventually requested and was granted asylum in the United States.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: PBS (effective July 19), Tribeca @ Home (through June 23)
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/11/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Citizen Penn
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
P.S. Please Burn This Letter

Hearts and Bones (2019)


Getting the shot.

(2019) Drama (Gravitas) Hugo Weaving, Andrew Luri, Hayley McElhinney, Bolude Watson, Alan Dukes, Melanie De Ferranti, Toni Scanlan, Brandon Burke, Victoria Haralabidou, Fran Kelly, Karim Zreika, Michael Kotsohilis, Jamie Oxenbould, Danielle King, Antonia Puglisi, Aker Shagouk, Jack Scott, Lucy Doherty Nico Lathouris, Simon Melki, Teresa Zaidan, Ava Carofylis. Directed by Ben Lawrence

 

We live in times in which great horrors are visited upon the innocent. In places like South Sudan, Syria, Rwanda, Bosnia, Palestine, Venezuela, and elsewhere, civilians are caught in the crossfire of warring factions. It has gotten to the point where we no longer call photojournalists covering these atrocities “combat photographers” but “conflict photographers” because it is no longer a war, but something worse.

Dan Fisher (Weaving) is a much-admired “conflict photographer” who has been to every trouble spot around the globe in his distinguished career. After returning home to Sydney following a harrowing experience when he came upon the aftermath of an ambush, he is hanging on by a fingernail. He suffers from terrible nightmares; he has been away from home so much that he has resorted to putting a post-it note on his bedside lamp so that he knows where he is when he wakes up. On top of this, he found out that his partner Josie Avril (McElhinney) is pregnant. This does not go over well, as is explained later in the film. Dan is preparing to publish a book of his photographs, and an exhibition of his work is being presented by a local museum.

Through this he meets Sebastian (Luri), a cab driver from the South Sudan who has moved to Sydney with his wife Anishka (Watson) and infant daughter, with another baby on the way. Sebastian has come to view some photographs of a South Sudanese village where he once lived and where his family was butchered when the whole village was massacred.

Sebastian is asking for a lot; he wants to view the pictures, and then have them neither published nor exhibited. One can imagine the reasons for it; those photographs would bring up memories that would be painful. Sebastian also wants Dan to photograph the choir that he is a member of, the type of work that Dan doesn’t do.  But Sebastian has come at a bad time; Dan is in the midst of a panic attack and faints dead away. Sebastian picks him up and takes him to the hospital in his cab.

An unlikely friendship develops between the two men, who both harbor destructive secrets. Those secrets are threatening to tear both men apart, and destroy their lives and relationships. Maybe, though, they can help each other through the minefields of their past and find a future worth living in.

 

This Australian film has been the recipient of all sorts of honors back home, and is only just now making its way here. The movie tackles a lot of themes; how PTSD can occur in not just those who fight in a conflict, but the observers and recorders of it as well, and the difficulties faced by refugees trying to put together shattered lives, often in an environment is hostile to their even being there.

Weaving, the veteran actor best known in the U.S. for his work in high-profile franchises like the Matrix trilogy, the Lord of the Rings saga and the MCU, turns in one of the finest performances of his career, and that’s saying something. Dan is basically a good man haunted by all kinds of demons, some of which we get to see and others that remain hidden in the depths of his soul. Weaving gives Dan a kind of tortured dignity, never overplaying even when Dan is losing control of his emotional calm. It’s a brilliant and ultimately humane performance.

=Luri is a real find. A non-professional, he handles an emotionally wrenching role with the aplomb and confidence of a veteran, and gives a performance that rivals that of Weaving. Both men have excellent chemistry together, and for their characters, it is their wounds that bind them, which plays out in a fascinating way.

The movie is brutal at times on an emotional level; we are dealing with the kinds of pain in all four of the leads that are almost too much to bear, and yet people everywhere somehow manage to survive it, although not always. This is the kind of movie that has nothing subtle about it which is a double-sided shillelagh, The in-your-face nature of the emotional conflict means the viewer must confront that emotion head-on, which isn’t always easy for everyone. Those who have trauma of their own that they are dealing with may find this especially difficult.

Nonetheless, this is one of the finer movies of this peculiar cinematic year. Great acting, a mesmerizing story and earnest motives by the filmmaker make this a movie you won’t soon forget.

REASONS TO SEE: Weaving and Luri turn in career-defining performances. Brutal on an emotional level. Effective throughout.
REASONS TO AVOID: More of a blunt instrument than a surgical scalpel.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity, brief violence, adult themes and sex.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Luri hadn’t acted before this film; when he was cast, he was working as a garbage collector.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, DirecTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Microsoft, Redbox, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/1/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 81% positive reviews, Metacritic: 71/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Harrison’s Flowers
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
NEXT:
The August Virgin

Miss Bala (2019)


Doing the cartel crouch.

(2019) Action (ColumbiaGina Rodriguez, Ismael Cruz Córdova, Anthony Mackie, Cristina Rodio, Damián Alcázar, Matt Lauria, Ricardo Abarca, Sebastián Cano, Aislinn Derbez, Lilian Guadalupe Tapia Robles, Erick Rene Delgadillo, Mikhail Plata, Jorge Humberto Millan Mardueño, Thomas Dekker, José Sefami, Gaby Orihuela, Roberto Sosa, Vivian Chan. Directed by Catherine Hardwicke

 

For those in the know, Mexico has a thriving cinematic scene that has produced such luminaries as Guillermo del Toro and Alfonso Cuaron, as well as some amazing films, like Y tu mama tambien and Amores perros, not to mention a stark thriller called Miss Bala.

That movie, Mexico’s official submission for the 2012 Best Foreign Language Film Oscar, had a lot going for it but was ultimately flawed, largely due to the somewhat one-dimensional nature of the lead character, although the actress playing her did a pretty good job considering that she didn’t have a whole lot to work with. In the American remake, Gloria Fuentes (Rodriguez) is an American make-up artist who returns to the place of her birth, Tijuana to help her best friend Suzu (Rodio) with her make-up for the upcoming Miss Baja pageant.

They go to a local nightclub so that Suzu has an opportunity to mingle with the judges, particularly Police Chief Salazar (Alcázar) whose vote is crucial to winning the pageant. However, while Gloria has excused herself to the bathroom, a group of heavily armed cartel thugs shoot up the nightclub. Gloria escapes but in the confusion can’t find Suzu. When Suzu hasn’t appeared by the next morning – and is not among the dead – she realizes that Suzu has been taken, but by who?

Gloria is kidnapped herself by the Las estrellas gang whose leader Lino (Córdova) who wants to make use of Gloria and promises to find Suzu if she does what she’s told. There are, as you might expect, plans within plans, plots stirring and double crosses across the board. A gruff DEA agent (Lauria) also wants to use Gloria to infiltrate the gang, and an American gangster (Mackie) warns that there is a DEA mole in the gang. What’s a girl to do?

Rodriguez, who was so good in Jane the Virgin in a comic role, shows leading lady presence not to mention some pretty decent action chops, although I kinda wish she had more opportunity to use them. She has “star” written all over her; unfortunately, in the time period we are currently enduring, her Hispanic background may be an issue with a segment of the moviegoing crowd which is a shame; she is absolutely terrific here.

The rest of the movie is basically a pretty rote action film which gets points for getting made with a predominantly Hispanic cast in the age of “Build that wall” but loses points for not displaying a ton of originality. A lot of the best elements of the original film were taken out, but one critical new element was added in; Gloria is no victim, regardless of her circumstances. That’s pretty refreshing to see a female in an action movie as strong and as capable as this one and not be played by Sigourney Weaver or Linda Hamilton.

REASONS TO SEE: Rodriguez is a terrific action star/leading lady.
REASONS TO AVOID: Would have been more effective with an “R” rating.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a fair amount of violence, drug and sexual content and plenty of profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: A remake of a 2011 Mexican movie of the same title.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AMC On Demand, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Microsoft, Movies Anywhere, Redbox, Sling TV, Starz, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/8/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 22% positive reviews, Metacritic: 41/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Columbiana
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Parkland Rising

22-July


One of the most heinous crimes ever committed.

(2018) True Life Drama (NetflixAnders Danielsen Lie, Jonas Strand Gravli, Jon Ølgarden, Maria Bock, Thorbjørn Harr, Seda Witt, Isak Bakli Aglen, Ola G. Furuseth, Marit Adeleide Andreassen, Øystein Martinsen, Valborg Frøysnes, Harald Nordmann, Anders Kulsrud Storruste, Monica Borg Fure, Mathias Eckhoff, Selma Strøm Sönmez, Hilde Olausson. Directed by Paul Greengrass

 

As meaningful a date September 11, 2001 is in the United States, so July 22, 2011 is in Norway. On that date, a lone right-wing extremist detonated a bomb in downtown Oslo near the central government district which killed eight people, then continued on to Utøya island and a youth summer camp where many children of the liberal Labour party were staying. This massacre resulted in 69 more dead for a total of 77 dead, the worst massacre in Norway since the Second World War.

We meet Anders Behring Breivik (Lie) as he is preparing his explosives, mixing fertilizer and an accelerant and adding enough explosives to cause some real damage. In the meantime, children are arriving at their summer camp, playing soccer, renewing friendships and exchanging furtive looks across a campfire. Among them are Viljar Hanssen (Gravli) and Lara Rachid (Witt) who are certainly attracted to one another.

\When the attack comes to the island, everything falls into complete chaos. Viljar, Lara and his brother Torje (Aglen) take refuge on the cliff face near the beach. Breivik discovers them and Viljar is seriously injured protecting his brother. Eventually the police, who had been occupied with the bombing, make it up to the island and apprehend Breivik. As Viljar recovers and goes through often-frustrating physical therapy, his family adjust to the tragedy while Breivik requests that lawyer Geir Lippestad (Ølgarden) represents him during his trial. Although Lippestad leans to the left politically, he is required by law to provide representation to Breivik and despite a personal cost, he does his best.

Greengrass has done these sorts of true story films before as in Captain Phillips, Bloody Sunday and United 93. There was some concern that the movie came too soon after the massacre; many families are still grieving. However, he did turn in a nifty movie that not only showed the mechanics of the tragedy but also how the survivors were affected. The movie also follows the trial and how the lawyer for Breivik was also affected.

There is some (although in some cases, not enough) as to why this happened and certainly there are some clear parallels to what America is facing in violent extremist behavior and easy access to military grade weapons. Sensitive conservative-leaning viewers might be uncomfortable with the message being sent here but I can’t believe that anyone would argue that extremism is a bad thing other than an extremist.

Greengrass utilizes a mostly Norwegian cast (speaking in English) and a Norwegian crew; Cinematographer Pǻl Ulvik Rokseth does a magnificent job, showcasing the beauty of the island, and capturing the frantic chaos in the aftermath of the dual attacks. Greengrass wisely doesn’t linger on the attacks themselves although he doesn’t soft-pedal the horror of them either; in fact, I thought that the most superb scenes in the film were the courtroom scenes near the end.

I don’t know if this film is capitalizing on the trauma from the attacks or is merely documenting them. I tend to lean towards the latter, but I can understand people who are disturbed that this film was even made. It’s a very think line to walk, but I think Greengrass navigated it well particularly since he chose to focus on the victims rather than on the cowardly attacker. This is one of the most viscerally gripping films to come out of Netflix to date.

REASONS TO SEE: The courtroom scenes are riveting. Beautiful cinematography. Follows up with the victims and how the events of the day affected them.
REASONS TO AVOID: Could have trimmed a bit of excess
FAMILY VALUES: There are sequences of violence and some very disturbing images.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: When the project was announced, there was great sentiment in Norway against it being made. Over 20,000 signatures were collected in a petition denouncing the film..
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Netflix
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/25/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 80% positive reviews: Metacritic: 69/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Patriots Day
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
NEXT:
The Equalizer 2

Snowflake (Schneeflöckchen)


Even angels can’t get the blood stains out of their white robes.

(2017) Comedy Thriller (Artsploitation) Reza Brojerdi, Erkan Acar, Xenia Assenza, David Masterson, Gideon Burkhard, Alexander Schubert, David Gant, Adrian Topol, Antonio Wannek, Sven Martinek, Anjela Hobrig, Mathis Landwehr, Martin Goeres, Selam Tadese, Eskindir Tesfay, Alexander Wolf, Bruno Eyron, Stephen M. Gilbert, Judith Hoersch, Katja Wagner. Directed by Adolfo Kormerer

 

Vengeance is mine, sayeth the Lord according to the Bible. In the movies, vengeance belongs to any Tom, Dick, Harry or Jane willing to go far enough to achieve it. There is a reason, however, why God reserves vengeance for Himself.

This madly Meta German film begins with two Turkish men eating dolme kebabs in a Berlin shop. One likes the dolme, the other doesn’t. As they leave, we realize that a massacre has occurred in the shop. The two men – Tan (Acar) and Javid (Brojerdi) – calmly steal a car and discover in the back seat a screenplay. Curiously, the screenplay seems to predict everything the two say and do. Unnerved, they set out to find the man who wrote it.

The man turns out to be a somewhat rumpled dentist (Schubert) who has no idea what is going on. The two have other issues in that a mysterious woman named Eliana (Assenza) wants to see them dead for murdering her parents. She and her bodyguard Carson (Masterson) set out to meet Carson’s dad (Gant) who believes he is God and just might be. Talk about having Daddy issues! Anyway, the Almighty puts them in touch with a rogue’s gallery of assassins, including cannibals Bolek (Topol) and Dariusz (Wannek) who wear animal masks with Dariusz communicating only by squealing like the pig mask he wears. There’s also maniacal assassin Victor (Martinek) and a pair named Fumo (Tesfay) who is blind and Rashid (Tadese) who is not. The two targets have the benefit of beautiful guardian angel Snowflake (Hoersch) but also the wild card of superhero Hyper Electro Man (Landwehr) and would-be dictator Winter (Burkhard).

If that sounds like a handful, it is. This is a genre-bending, boundary-pushing mash-up that is as unique and totally original a movie you’ll see this year and maybe this decade. The movie boasts an extremely complicated but beautifully connected plot that on paper seems to be utterly senseless but once the final credits start rolling make absolute sense. This is the kind of movie that Quentin Tarantino would love.

The performances are solid throughout. Most of the actors are better known in Europe if they’re known anywhere, but despite the film’s microscopic budget they managed to cast some extremely talented actors – and got them to work for nothing.

The film is set in a post-economic collapse Berlin which is overrun by crime but people nonetheless go along with living their lives as normally as possible knowing that a trip to the grocery store – or to a dolme shop – could be fatal. That sounds a lot like the present day United States to me.

The humor here is biting and sometimes jarring and even whimsical and the action is well-staged. Most of the characters in the movie are pretty reprehensible in one way or another; seeking vengeance has a way of corrupting the soul and nearly everyone in the film is after revenge for one reason or another.

This was a most unexpected and welcome surprise; I hadn’t heard much about the film and even the distributor gave it merely a gentle push. I suppose this isn’t for everyone – some might find it a bit scattershot – but it certainly resonated with me. This is easily one of the best films of the year and one I would recommend to any film lover anywhere.

REASONS TO GO: A unique and original movie. The performances are solid all around. The story is engaging and the humor black as coal. It’s a little bit Tarantino, a little bit Monty Python.
REASONS TO STAY: The film’s a bit on the long side.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of profanity along with violence and gore, as well as some sexual content.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The chainsaw that Javid carries around in the movie is actually an electric one; the power cord was taped to the side so that it gave the illusion that it was gas-powered.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Fandango Now, Google Play, iTunes, Vudu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/10/18: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Free Fire
FINAL RATING: 9.5/10
NEXT:
The Favourite

Avengers: Infinity War


The latest Avengers movie, starring…everyone. Heck, you’re probably in it too!

(2018) Superhero (Disney/Marvel) Robert Downey Jr., Chris Pratt, Chris Evans, Chris Hemsworth, Zoe Saldana, Chadwick Boseman, Scarlett Johansson, Mark Ruffalo, Josh Brolin, Karen Gillan, Tom Hiddleston, Tom Holland, Don Cheadle, Benedict Cumberbatch, Paul Bettany, Elizabeth Olsen, Idris Elba, Danai Gurira, Anthony Mackie, Sebastian Stan, Peter Dinklage, Benedict Wong, Pom Klementieff and a cast of thousands. Directed by Anthony and Joe Russo

 

This is to date the biggest and most epic Marvel movie ever – until the next untitled Avengers movie, filmed concurrently with this one and scheduled for release in May 2019.

The mad Titan Thanos, seeing that the Universe is dreadfully out of balance, believes that he has a solution that will restore balance: to kill half of the entire population of the universe at random. There’s no practical way to do that so he has to do something that has never been done – he must retrieve all six of the Infinity Stones, gems created by the Big Bang and each with control of a different aspect of the universe – space, time, the mind, the soul, and so on.

Of course, the superheroes all oppose this plan and they come from all over – nearly every Marvel movie preceding this one is represented here from the spacefaring Guardians of the Galaxy to the high tech Black Panther and of course the various and sundry Avengers films. It’s a colossal undertaking and quite frankly I didn’t expect them to pull it off. There are an awful lot of characters here and a lot of them really don’t get much screen time.

Thanos (Brolin) gets a ton of screen time and it’s no joke the best portrayal of a comic book villain since Heath Ledger won an Oscar for playing one. Thanos is truly the Big Bad of the Marvel Universe and while the heroes valiantly take him on, things don’t look too good. It’s an epic tale that is taking two movies to tell.

The action is as you’d expect spectacular and the effects seamless. There are even some poignant moments, most of them occurring in the last twenty minutes of the film. Who knew that Marvel knows pathos? In any case, this is an emotional rollercoaster that every Marvel fan is going to be overjoyed to take – even the usually hard-to-impress fanboys have been singing the praises of this one.

Yes, I realize you’ve probably already seen it and if you haven’t you likely aren’t going to and frankly you’re probably not reading this review in that case. So you’ve seen it. Maybe you’ve already purchased a digital copy (the Blu-Ray and DVD editions were just released) and likely you’ll be getting one of those. This isn’t the best Marvel movie yet but it’s damn close.

REASONS TO GO: Brolin gives a game-changing performance as Thanos. The action is non-stop and without peer. There are some very poignant moments.
REASONS TO STAY: There are too many characters to keep track of.
FAMILY VALUES: There is nearly non-stop sci-fi/superhero action and violence, some crude references and some scenes with disturbing content.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: At the beginning of the film, the distress call from the Asgardian ship is the voice of Kenneth Branagh, the director of the first Thor film.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Fandango Now, Google Play, iTunes, Microsoft, Movies Anywhere, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/15/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 83% positive reviews. Metacritic: 68/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Captain America: Civil War
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
NEXT:
Songwriter

The Age of Blood (Yeokmo – Banranui Sidae)


Don’t cross swords with this guy if you can avoid it!

(2017) Martial Arts (Storm) Hae-In Jung, Won-jong Lee, Cheoi-min Park, Seung-jin Hong, Ji-hoon Kim, Hae-Sung Kwon, Tae-Joon Ryu, Sua-a Hong, Lee-won Jong, Jo-jae Yoon. Directed by Hong-sun Kim

I had always thought that the Chinese and Japanese were the masters of the martial arts period movies but of late the Koreans have won a seat at that particular table and this film does nothing to diminish their newly found status.

Kim-Ho (Jung) is a master swordsman for the army of King Yeongjo (Ryu) who has returned home in shame after losing a battle to the rebel armies of In-jwa Lee (Kim) who was captured during the fight. To his  mortification, Kim-Ho is demoted to a prison guard at the equivalent of a federal penitentiary. To make matters worse, he becomes subordinate to his Uncle who has become very disappointed in his nephew, as has Kim-Ho’s daughter who inexplicably winds up going to work with him his first night.

And that first night turns out to be a really bad night for “take your daughter to work” night. In-Jwa Lee’s right hand man and master swordsman in his own right Min-chul Do (Yoon) is dead set on breaking out his boss from jail. The plan is to then take him to the Imperial Palace where he’ll have the opportunity to take out the King and, to his mind, restore the kingdom to righteousness. Did we mention that Yeongjo ascended the throne by poisoning his brother, the rightful heir?

But neither In-jwa nor Min-chul reckoned on the presence of Kim-Ho who is armed only with what is essentially a nightstick, his own sword being taken away by his Uncle who disdainfully explains that he won’t need it. Kim-Ho will have to take on an army nearly by himself, one that is set on killing every living thing in the prison, guards and prisoners alike. Heads will roll (literally) and blood will spill before the night is out.

This is a more than satisfying action film with some spectacular sequences and some nifty swordplay. Jung has become a star in Korea although he is not quite as well-known here in the States; he is better known for his boyish good looks and tends to play more romantic roles. In this film, he starts off with almost a comedic role but as the film wears on becomes a deadly warrior. This is, so far as I know, his first foray into martial arts action star territory and he shows he can handle it ably.

The movie also benefits from a very well-done animated opening that sets the scene, and terrific cinematography throughout, although some of the night scenes are too dimly lit. There’s also a strange penchant to go from color to black and white and back again without any rhyme or reason.

Although some of the characters in the film are historical (and a few based on historical figures) this is largely fiction. While you get a glimpse of Korea’s Joseon era – in many ways their golden age – this isn’t a history lesson per se. However it is massively entertaining and is everything you want from a martial arts historical piece. This doesn’t have American distribution yet and sadly their last screening at the New York Asian Film Festival is this afternoon but keep your eyes peeled for it at your local Asian film festival. Hopefully a savvy distributor specializing in Asian films will pick this one up.

REASONS TO GO: The cinematography is beautiful and the action sequences outstanding.  The movie changes drastically in tone from beginning to end which actually works really well. The animated opening sequence is outstanding.
REASONS TO STAY: There are strange switches from color to black and white without explanation or seeming reason. Some of the sequences are poorly lit.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a whole lot of violence and some profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: King Yeongjo was an actual monarch during Korea’s Joseon era who ascended to the throne pretty much the way it was described here in the movie.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/4/18: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Curse of the Golden Flower
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
The Scythian Lamb