Saturday, August 7, 2010

Movie Review: Ashura

Ashura-jo no Hitomi

“Ashura,” aka “Blood Gets in Your Eyes”

Japan, 2005

Genre: Action, Fantasy

119 minutes

Based on a modern kabuki stage play, Ashura is a tale of romance, treachery, and violence. It is a tale about a demon-slayer who runs from his past, only to discover that it has all caught up with him.

Yojiro Takita directs this adaptation of the hit kabuki play, closely following the original story in the film. This works both for and against him at times, which begs the question of his intent for the adaptation. Driven by very beautiful sets and an outstanding score, the actual performances on screen are hammed to a point of absurdity. I imagine that Takita was looking for a larger-than-life story of epic proportions, but the result ends up feeling forced. The characters are written to have depth and sympathy, but end up sounding completely different from one scene to the next, lacking a basic consistency of personality that allows the audience to identify with them. Somegoro Ichikawa’s hero is genuinely charming at times, but overall feels like he’s just playing a cardboard cutout of a heroic stereotype. While such performances might work on stage (especially kabuki, which is generally highly stylized), the film adaptation makes it more cheesy than symbolic.

The production of the film is certainly impressive. As mentioned, the soundtrack is superb, adding life to many scenes that would otherwise have no redeeming value. The sets reveal rather clearly the stage roots of the piece, but this itself is not a fault. Many successful films make use of stylized sets or stage-style locations. However, it should be noted that the decision to do so makes the film feel very cramped, even when using exterior shots. It lacks the sense of wonder or majesty that can really only be achieved by shooting on location. Ashura also makes liberal use of digital effects to reinforce the supernatural fantasy aspects of the story. Stage performances make do with practical effects, and maintain a sense of illusion when doing so. Films, on the other hand, lose that quality with computer-generated imagery, especially with the over-the-top style used by this movie. The monsters seem intentionally fake and cartoonish, spewing fluorescent green blood upon their death. Marching forward with all the subtlety of neon rhinoceros, the look of the film is excessive and gaudy.

Selling itself as a swashbuckling adventure, the film’s fight scenes aren’t terribly done, especially when compared to other Japanese action movies like High-Kick Girl or Shinobi. Still, when looking at the fast-paced and hard-hitting choreography coming from countries from around the world, the fights feel stiff and awkward. Like the rest of the film, Ashura chooses style over substance, leaving the audience with a product indistinguishable from the sea of other C-list action movies in the video store.

Friday, July 30, 2010

Movie Review: Spin Kick


“Spin Kick,” aka “Taekwon Boys”

Korea, 2004

Genre: High School, Sports

102 minutes

After beating up their high school Taekwondo team, two young troublemakers are forced to join the team in order to make amends.

Spin Kick, for better or worse, plays like a very typical sports movie. From the rag-tag team of unlikely heroes, to the fallen coach, to the squeaky clean rival school champions, the only thing that sets the film apart from every other sports movie ever made is that it features Taekwondo. Starring Korean pop-idol Dong-wan Kim, Spin Kick is shallow and formulaic, but manages to entertain regardless.

The film is well-made, with high production quality probably supported by the South Korean government for the purposes of promoting Taekwondo in the media. The cinematography isn’t particularly inventive, or is the score very compelling. It is an average production, in every sense of the word. Dong-wan Kim gives a pretty good performance throughout, but most of his co-stars remain static and uninteresting. The exceptions that must be noted, however, are the Coach and best friend, both of whom deliver a strong range of emotion with very solid readings.

The story, as mentioned, is more or less a re-hash of every underdog sports narrative ever done. The high school’s long history of Taekwondo success has fallen flat, and somehow requires the combined talents of misfit punks, a failed coach, and spunky spirit to revitalize the program. They magically win the championship tournament against the better funded, better trained, and better organized favorites, proving once again that heart is an able substitute for a lifetime of training. I would apologize for spoiling the film, but it’s really a story we’ve all seen a hundred times before. The characters are introduced and fail because they don’t get along, then there’s a magic training montage, then tragedy strikes, then they overcome adversity and triumph. It’s a good formula, and has served movies well from the Mighty Ducks to Remember the Titans. As much as I want to dislike this film for having such a contrived and unoriginal plot, it’s hard to find faults beyond that. It’s funny and entertaining, and because I have a very cursory knowledge of Taekwondo as a sport, it’s hard to know how accurate their portrayal of it is. The fight scenes look authentic with the exception of some rather obvious wire-work, and wraps together as a pretty satisfactory package.

It’s not anything special, but it’s not a boring film. If you have any interest in Taekwondo or Dong-wan Kim, it’s worth checking out. It certainly won’t be winning any awards, but as far as a popcorn movies go, it does what it sets out to do.

Friday, July 23, 2010

Movie Review: Crows Zero

Crows Zero

Japan, 2007

Genre: Gangster, High School

130 minutes

A prequel to the manga series by Hiroshi Takahashi, Takashi Miike directs the origins of Genji’s rise to power in the ultra-violent Suzuran All-Boys High School.

In the chaotic world of Takashi’s Suzuran, a student’s worth is proved by his fists and his gang. Our protagonist, Takiya Genji, transfers to the high school in hopes of conquering it, a feat his yakuza father was unable to do decades ago. Like other yakuza and criminal films, Miike touches on themes of friendship and loyalty, the bonds between men forged in battle, and the respect given to leaders who show their strength to their followers. While the writing is rather contrived in places (in particular the repeated use of a love interest as a convenient plot point), the actors open up the space and bring the audience into the story very well. While switching back and forth between adolescent humor and dramatic tension, the cast is guilty of hamming it up in places, but it mostly goes unnoticed.

The photography of the film isn’t particularly outstanding, although there are a few truly iconic scenes. Miike does manage to capture the epic atmosphere demanded by the story, and yet keeps the camera relatively grounded, gritty enough to embrace the visceral nature of the subject matter. This works against the audience in some of the action sequences, which can become confusing before identifying characteristics are clear to the viewer. Even at the end of the film, when we’re aware of who is beating up whom (generally given away by their outlandish hairstyles), faces and identities get lost in the shuffle. Although not usually vital to understanding the story by the end, enthusiasts of fights on film may have a hard time of enjoying these pieces.

The action itself is superb, and the cinematography doesn’t always do it justice. Bordering between brutal realism and cartoonish violence, the comic book roots are clearly evident. The choreography is simple and direct; expect lots of haymakers and straight knees to the midsection. With the addition of the flashy kick or pro-wrestling throw here and there, the result ends up looking very much like a manga about violent teenagers in a comic book scrap. While not particularly elegant or fantastic like the Hong Kong style of fight scenes, Crows Zero has its own rather pleasing aesthetic, thanks in part to very impressive editing and scoring. The climax of the film shifts moods dynamically, but it fits so well that it’s almost unnoticeable.

Having never read the Crows manga, I can’t say for certain how accurate an adaptation Miike produced. However, as a piece of film on its own merits, I can say that Crows Zero is a very fun movie for comic book violence.

Friday, July 16, 2010

Movie Review: Blood on the Sun

Blood on the Sun

USA, 1945

Genre: Noir, Political Thriller

98 minutes

James Cagney stars as a tough newspaper editor in Imperial Japan, bent on uncovering a conspiracy within the Japanese government for world conquest.

Blood on the Sun is a forgotten classic from a bygone age, and a must-see for any fan of film noir. They really don’t make films like this one any more, which is unfortunate. Times were different back then, when you needed more than just a camera and some friends to put a movie together. With brilliant photography and sharp dialogue, Blood on the Sun is a fine example of the genre. However, to be totally fair, this was also an era before feminism or any kind of political correctness. Villains portrayed in yellow-face with ludicrously forced accents are definitely noticeable and a little difficult to watch in the modern age. Although based on historical events and documents (which they themselves are questionable), one wonders just how accurate the portrayal of Japanese culture is in this wartime film.

Social issues aside, Blood on the Sun is superbly produced, even winning the Oscar for Best Art Direction. The use of lighting for dramatic effect is stunning, and the score, while not exceptional, fits as a product of the time period. Cagney is fantastic in the leading role, exemplifying the Tough Guy role he was known for. He plays an idealized American male, rough and brash, but always sound in his judgment and his principles. Silvia Sidney’s role of the leading lady is melodramatic at times, but otherwise satisfactory for the character as written. As mentioned, don’t expect much in terms of the modern feminism in this movie. The villains of the tale, led by John Emery and Robert Armstrong, deliver the poorest performances of the film, mostly due to their failure to produce a believable Japanese accent.

Impressively, Cagney insisted on doing his own stunt work for the film, and studied judo extensively under John Halloran, an officer with the LAPD, and Ken Kuniyuki, a leading sensei in the Southern California area. While fight choreography has definitely progressed a long way from the 1940s, the action is still impressive as one of the earliest martial arts movies in history, and probably the first to show judo to Americans. Cagney’s judo skills were strong, and he demonstrated it to great effect in the film’s fight scenes. He has even been quoted as saying he loved judo so much that he continued to practice it long after the production was finished.

While carrying of the social baggage that comes with aging for 65 years, Blood on the Sun is still a great film even today, and worth watching as both a piece of history and just a fun popcorn movie.

Friday, July 9, 2010

Movie Review: Fatal Deviation

Fatal Deviation

Ireland, 1998

Genre: Action, Tournament

90 minutes

After ten years away from his home, a fighter returns to learn the truth about his father and win an ancient fighting tournament.

This is one of those movies you hear about on the internet being so bad, so incompetent, so hilariously put together that you think there’s no way it could be as bad as advertised. So while I could just point you to the film on Youtube (conveniently uploaded in its entirety), I’m going to take this week to emphatically say that yes, it is in fact as bad as you think it is. It’s poorly shot, poorly acted, poorly edited; just about everything that can be done looks like it was done by someone with absolutely no idea how to perform their craft. As a study of film production, it works perfectly as a “What Not to Do” film.

James Bennet writes, produces, casts, shoots, and stars in what is a typical case of martial arts egomania. Like so many C-movies before him, Bennet becomes convinced that because he has trained in martial arts, he is somehow qualified to become a film-maker, using what limited resources at his disposal to promote himself as the next action star. And like those before him, he ultimately fails in all aspects of the medium, becoming the subject of ridicule and cult-status for the absolute abomination he has created.

So what has he done wrong, really? He had a vision for a film to sell himself as a genuine actor and performer, and probably funded the project with a small group of friends, then managed to get it distributed by a small-time company. Respectable, right? Right. Still, that doesn’t mean that the acting wasn’t boring, the action haphazard, or that the plot wasn’t full of holes the size of Dublin. It only means that there was a reason behind the sloppy production of the film. Objectively speaking, the movie was terrible, and no amount of justification will change that. If you’re really interested in seeing just how bad the film is, you can find it online at the link below. But honestly, it’s really not worth it.

Friday, July 2, 2010

Movie Review: High-Kick Girl

High-Kick Girl

Japan, 2009

Genre: Action

81 minutes

A high school girl training in karate seeks out stronger opponents to test her fighting skills on, only to become involved in a revenge plot by a gang of thugs against her master.

In addition to Hong Kong, Japan now faces stiff competition from Korea and Thailand when it comes to producing martial arts movies and martial arts superstars. High-Kick Girl introduces Rina Takeda, a young Japanese idol who holds a black belt in Ryukyu Shorin-Ryu Karate, hoping to develop her new film career into the next action franchise. However, with incredibly low standards of production quality going into this project, I would be surprised if anyone even bothers to learn the actress’s name, much less watch her next movie. With poor writing, bland performances, and altogether lackluster direction, High-Kick Girl is a boring, contrived, and visual mess, failing in just about every aspect of the genre and film-making as a whole.

The script’s pacing has no sense of drama or tension whatsoever, and none of the dialogue is captivating at all. We are thrust from one event to the next without any idea of who is important, what is happening, or why any of the characters are doing anything at all. Coupled with single-note performances by the entire cast, the movie drags on for the entire hour and twenty minutes that it spans. Normally, these sorts of things would be tolerable in an action movie, which provides the real entertainment in between the moments of bland plot forwarding. However, in the case of High-Kick Girl, the failures of production penetrate every level of the film, leaving nothing worth watching. With ridiculously excessive amounts of slow-motion, the camera work does nothing but emphasize the terrible choreography and execution by the stunt team. Often, they will repeat entire stunt sequences in slow-motion, using the exact same angle as we’ve just seen. This pointless gesture just pads the movie further and makes it obvious how little material the team actually had to work with. Removing all the slow motion and repeat cuts, the film as a whole would measure around an hour, if that.

Thematically, director/writer Fuyuhiko Nishi treads the same clichéd martial arts tropes of “self-defense and protection only” and “fighting is wrong, and is a last resort only.” However, without any affinity for the leading characters, the message falls flat and Takeda’s arc feels less like the development of self and more like an abrupt shift of personality compelled by the plot. Unless you have some massive fetish for Japanese school girls in action, there is absolutely nothing redeeming about this film. It is a disappointment as an action flic, fails as a plea for traditionalism, and lacks any impact as a cathartic work of art at all. If we are to see more of Takeda as a rising film star, hopefully it won’t be anywhere near Fuyuhiko or his team.

Friday, June 25, 2010

Movie Review: Born to Fight

Kerd Ma Lui

Thailand, 1984

Genre: Pulp Action

93 minutes

Panna Rittikrai, the man behind Ong Bak and Tom Yum Goong, directs and stars in Born to Fight, one of his earliest films. A Hong Kong lawyer uncovers an embezzling plot and must flee to Thailand seeking protection from a fearsome gang of enforcers.

Marketed as the film inspiration for Tony Jaa’s own stunt career, Panna’s work is easily recognized in this piece of history. Panna himself was heavily influenced by the films of Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan, and numerous references to both action stars make their way into the movie (try counting how many times Panna swipes his nose). Still, this piece represents a landmark in the development of Thai action cinema, and pioneered many of the stunt techniques seen later in his films with Tony Jaa.

While the production quality is definitely reflective of the low budget and undeveloped photography skills, the movie is rather entertaining for what it had to work with. The acting is unsurprisingly wooden and melodramatic, but the dialogue is genuinely clever and humorous at times. Panna relies on a number of classic slapstick gags for comic relief, which doesn’t always feel appropriate for the moment, but the talents of his comedic co-star help sell the cheesiness of the jokes.

Like his protégé, Panna uses the film to demonstrate his numerous skills in stunt performance and choreography. Fast paced fight scenes and full-contact strikes became the cornerstones for his wild success with Ong Bak, and his use of a variety of martial arts styles would be seen again in Ong Bak 2. Leaps off cars, over dirt bikes, into flames, and through floorboards make up rest of the stunts and illustrate Panna’s still rough style of choreography.

While Born to Fight obviously can’t compare with the far more polished works made more than twenty years later, the movie is still very much worth checking out. Taken for the 70s era B-movie that it is, Panna directs a fun romp through rural Thailand, with spit-takes, motorbike chases, and fights against a team of ninjas. Choppy and clumsy at times, Born to Fight represents the first in an amazing legacy of hard-hitting Thai action films.