Kate


“That’s why I became an actress…for the glamour!”

(2021) Action (Netflix) Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Woody Harrelson, Miku Martineau, Tadanobu Asano, Jun Kunimura, Michel Huisman, Miyavi, Mari Yamamoto, Hirotaka Renge, Kazuya Tanabe, Cindy Sirinya Bishop, Amelia Crouch, Ava Caryofyllis, Gemma Brooke Allen, Hiroyuki Kobayashi, Koji Nishiyama, Kazuhiro Muroyama, Shinji Uchiyama, Miku Kobato. Directed by Cedric Nicolas-Troyan

 

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before; a badass super-competent assassin yearns to leave the business of turning people into worm food behind them, only to find out that their employers are unwilling to let them retire. Said badass super-competent assassin goes ballistic in an attempt to take revenge on those who have done them wrong. I noticed you haven’t stopped me.

Kate (Winstead) is a badass super-competent assassin, and has been raised to be such by her handler Varrick (Harrelson) since she was an orphaned child. But she wants out and a chance to live a relatively normal life and maybe even start a family. When her last assignment doesn’t work out as planned, she discovers that she’s been poisoned and has 24 agonizing hours to live.

As you might imagine, Kate doesn’t intend to go gently into that good night. Instead, she intends to rage, rage against the dying of the light and, more specifically, against those who poisoned her. Her investigation – which is done with guns and blades to cut down on time – leads her to a Yakuza clan chief named Kijima (Kunimura), but he is too well-guarded to go after directly. The way in is through his teenage niece Ani (Martineau) who at first is a kidnap victim but eventually begins to realize that she and Kate have a lot in common, and begins to access her own inner badass super-competent assassin.

This Japan-set Netflix extravaganza benefits from having the good folks at 87North, the production team responsible for the John Wick series, working with them and that particular franchise heavily influences the proceedings here. One of the things that is positive here is that the badass super-competent assassin here is female and that she develops a protégé relationship with a young woman, which is a nice gender-switch for this type of movie.

Winstead has done some decent action heroine work in the past, but she’s never been better than she is here. While the character of Kate doesn’t have a whole lot of emotional baggage – she’s been trained since childhood that way – Winstead still manages to imbue the character with humanity. Even as Kate’s body begins to betray her and the poison begins to reduce her reactions and bodily functionality into obstacles for her to overcome, Kate still carries herself with a lethal presence that is all Winstead. It’s a compelling action lead portrayal.

Martineau makes Ani much less annoying than the character might have been in less capable hands. A lot of time the teen protégé role tends to be a means for a younger audience to relate to the film and often most writers portray them as quipping, arrogant jerks who end up knowing more than the lead and saving the day. That kind of thing tends to make me want to gag.

Not that teens can’t be heroic; there are a whole lot of them out there who are, but there are plenty who are not. That’s true of all age groups, by the way. But I digress.

The Japanese-setting is neon-drenched, stylistically reminding of films like John Wick and Black Rain. I do think though that the movie missed an opportunity by making Japanese culture somewhat stereotypical; I would have preferred a deeper dive into the richness of it, a well waiting to be tapped, but alas, the filmmakers preferred to go the safer, easier route. Kate seems to be a modern samurai, or more accurately in this instance a ronin, but they don’t really explore that aspect at all, really. They should have.

Still, the movie is an entertaining if somewhat overly-familiar action movie that is executed reasonably well. With a little more care and love, this could have been something truly special rather than the decent diversion that it is.

REASONS TO SEE: Some really terrific action sequences, and Winstead makes a solid action heroine.
REASONS TO AVOID: The plot is going to feel a little bit familiar (a lot familiar, actually).
FAMILY VALUES: There is a whole lot of violence and gore, plenty of profanity, and some sexual situations.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This marks the fourth occasion (and counting) that Winstead has portrayed a character named Kate.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Netflix
CRITICAL MASS: As of 01/28/22: Rotten Tomatoes: 45% positive reviews; Metacritic: 47/100.=
COMPARISON SHOPPING: D.O.A.
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
La Soga: Salvation

Harmonium (Fuchi ni tatsu)


A family portrait on the beach.

(2016) Drama (Film Movement) Mariko Tsutsui, Tadanobu Asano, Kanji Furutachi, Momone Shinokawa, Kana Mahiro, Taiga, Takahiro Miura. Directed by Kôji Fukada

Family dynamics are ever changing, evolving things. What appears to be on the outside may not necessarily be what circumstances are behind closed doors. The whole thing about happy families is that they are in reality a myth for the most part – they are even rarer than a unicorn.

On the surface, Toshio (Furutachi) has a good life. He and his family live quietly in apartments above the machine shop he runs and inherited from his father. If he seems a bit distracted at the breakfast table, he nonetheless provides for his family as best he can. His wife Akie (Tsutsui) is a good Christian woman and a doting mother on their daughter Hotaru (Shinokawa). She is sweet and high-spirited in the way of some children; she is also learning to play the harmonium with indifferent success.

Into the mix comes Yasaka (Asano), an old friend of Toshio. It is apparent he has just been released from prison and Toshio offers him a job and a place to live on the spot. This surprises Akie who knows that the business is struggling but being the polite Japanese wife that she is she says nothing. As the days go by she gets to know Yasaka a little better and her initial reservations seem to be abating and when he shares with her details of his crime she does not recoil. Rather, she is turned on or at least isn’t turned off by the idea of having an affair with him. When they do get physical it’s difficult to know who’s seducing who.

But a tragedy occurs that devastates the family and Yasaka disappears. Eight years later the family is still recovering, if you can call it that. Akie has lost much of her faith and Toshio has become fixated on finding Yasaka, the architect of his sorrow. A new worker joins the family – Takashi (Taiga) – who is eager to help the family heal, but when karma comes to roost it may completely destroy what little unity the family has left.

The movie is presented in two distinct sections; the first is dominated by Yasaka who is like a time bomb waiting to explode; the second is the aftermath eight years later in which the parents are trying to pick up the pieces and cope. It’s quite a bit harder to watch the second half as the emotions in it are so raw and almost overwhelming. What goes on in the first is more of a prelude, a dance around the underlying issues. The second is the after-effect, when the bomb has exploded on the dance floor.

The performances are very measured in the first part. Yasaka is stiff as a board and generally clad in white; Toshio always seems distracted and lost in his own world. Akie has the smile and the charm that she shows to the world but when she is at home she knows her marriage has crumbled into ashes and she tastes the bitterness of them in her mouth.

In the second half Akie and Toshio are still closed off to an extent but the pretenses are gone. Toshio smolders with a desire for vengeance; Akie is protective of what’s left of her family and feels her own share of guilt as to what happened. I won’t say the performances are night and day because they are not – what they are is what you’d expect how people would react to a life-changing tragedy eight years afterwards.

Fukada is one of Japan’s most promising directorial talents and this is the kind of film that shows why many think he may eventually revolutionize Japanese cinema. He has a reputation for being an outside-the-box kind of guy and while it might be difficult for those of us watching with Western eyes, he is truly turning Japanese culture inside out in this film. In its own way it is much like Luis Brunel slicing open an eyeball in Un Chien Andalou.

This is a  truly strong effort that is going to be riding the festival circuit for a short time until it gets a limited release in June (as of this writing). It would be worth seeking out at your local art house, film festival or eventually on whatever streaming service this winds up on. This is a look at changing family dynamics in Japan and what lies beneath the surface of even the happiest of families. It’s absolutely unforgettable and even if it is a little bit on the long side (particularly during the first portion of the film) you won’t be sorry you sought it out.

REASONS TO GO: There is an underlying tension that starts off quietly and slowly builds to a crescendo. The end mirrors the beginning in an unsettling way.
REASONS TO STAY: Another movie that’s too long for its own good.
FAMILY VALUES: There is quite a bit of sensuality as well as some violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This was the Jury Prize winner at the 2016 Cannes Film Festival.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/7/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Guest
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: Are We Not Cats?

47 Ronin


Keanu Reeves keeps a sharp eye out for flying monkeys.

Keanu Reeves keeps a sharp eye out for flying monkeys.

(2013) Martial Arts Fantasy (Universal) Keanu Reeves, Hiroyuki Sanada, Rinko Kikuchi, Tadanobu Asano, Ko Shibasaki, Min Tanaka, Jin Akanishi, Masayoshi Hanada, Hiroshi Sogabe, Takato Yonemoto, Hiroshi Yamada, Shu Nakajima, Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa, Neil Fingleton, Natsuki Kunimoto, Togo Igawa, Tanroh Ishida, Yorick van Wageningen, Clyde Kusatsu, Haruka Abe. Directed by Carl Rinsch

There is honor and courage and then there are the ancient samurai of Japan. If we in the West think we know what those concepts are, think again. For that group of warriors, those weren’t just concepts – they were their way of life.

In feudal Japan, the kind and just Lord Asano (Tanaka) rules in a beautiful and bucolic province of Ako. He takes in a half-breed man named Kai (Reeves) who apparently escaped from the demon-infested forest as a boy, although his samurai urge him not to. His beautiful daughter Mika (Shibasaki) nurses him back to health and the two fall in love, although there is absolutely no future in it.

But not everyone is as honorable as Lord Asano. Lord Kira (Asano) desires the wealthy and plentiful lands ruled by Asano and determines to obtain them. With his devious partner, a shape-shifting witch (Kikuchi) who poses as one of his concubines, Kira hatches a plot to shame Lord Asano during a visit by the Shogun (Tagawa) which results in Asano’s ritual suicide. His samurai are released from service and declared to be Ronin, masterless samurai which is the equivalent of a mercenary in modern times although with much less respect. They are forbidden from seeking vengeance by order of the shogun. Kai is sold as a slave to the Dutch where he is made to fight in their bare knuckle brawls and Mika is betrothed to Kira whom she will marry after a one year mourning period for her father.

This is more than the leader of Asano’s samurai, Oishi (Sanada) can take. Even though he knows the consequences of his actions, he determines to re-assemble his men and add Kai, whom he had previously expressed disdain and loathing for, to take on overwhelming odds to exact justice for their Lord, but it’s not an easy matter. Kira’s palace is more of a fortress and the possibility of 47 men storming the castle and surviving is simply ludicrous, plus he is under the protection of a skilled and seductive witch but even if they are successful, the men know they will be under the sentence of death for defying the shogun’s orders. So what’s the use?

Well, according to the actual men who inspired this movie, plenty. If you take away the supernatural elements of this version of it, the basic events happened pretty much as shown – a Japanese feudal lord was betrayed by an ambitious and ruthless fellow lord, rendering his samurai as Ronin. They did defy the shogun’s order and behave as depicted. The results were surprisingly the same as well and they were led by a real life samurai named Oishi.

This was something of a surprising choice for a very big budget Hollywood movie. Why the writer and filmmakers determined to add the supernatural elements of the witch, the Lovecraftian samurai, and the demons in the forest is somewhat surprising; a smaller budget version with fewer special effects would have been a much more effective film in my view.

I won’t deny that some of the CGI are pretty spectacular and the attempts to give this a kind of epic scope of the sort that the legendary Akira Kurosawa used to routinely give his movies are pleasing to the eye. However, Kurosawa certainly would have rolled his eyes at the over-complexity of the plot.  and quite frankly the legendary director wasn’t much into fantasy although he wasn’t afraid to use elements of the supernatural in his films when they were required.

Rumor has it that the studio was overly involved in the making of the movie, demanding changes and leading to a delay of nearly a year for this movie to come out. There definitely is a feel here for too many cooks in the kitchen; the movie doesn’t have the feel and flow that you get with a steady, single hand in charge. Perhaps they needed someone more experienced than first-time director Rinsch for a movie of this scope and budget.

While Reeves is as usual somewhat stiff and wooden, we are treated to some of the finest actors in Japan at this time with the Oscar-nominated Kikuchi as the seductive and sly witch with the different-colored eyes (one brown, one blue) and the respected Sanada, a veteran of The Last Samurai lending gravitas to Oishi and Asano (The Wolverine) giving Kira a kind of sly wink to go along with his wickedness. Tanaka (The Twilight Samurai) as the kindly Lord Asano is also memorable.

While this is a good-looking movie that gives us the opportunity to watch quality performances by actors who don’t get as much exposure in the West as they deserve, there is simply too many flaws for me to give this a solid recommendation. See it more as a curiosity piece rather than as coherent cinema and as long as your expectations aren’t too high, you might even find reasons to enjoy this.

REASONS TO GO: Some fairly cool eye candy. Nice supporting performances from a great Japanese cast.

REASONS TO STAY: Overwrought plot. Needless elements of fantasy in one of Japan’s most iconic true stories. Something of a mess.

FAMILY VALUES:  There is quite a bit of martial arts action violence, some fairly disturbing images  as well as some thematic elements that might be above the heads of the very young.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the seventh filmed version of the story although the first to come from Hollywood; in reality the 47 Ronin are revered in Japan for their honor and adherence to the Samurai code despite overwhelming odds.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/19/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 13% positive reviews. Metacritic: 29/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Forbidden Kingdom

FINAL RATING: 5/10

NEXT: Griff the Invisible