Foreign

House of Hummingbird (2018, Kim Bora)

Eun-hee (Park Ji-hu) is an average Seoul eighth grader circa 1994, which would be fine if being average weren’t a one-way ticket to nowhere. Park’s the youngest of three children; while presumably eldest sister Park Soo-yeon has already screwed up and is going to a crappy school across the bridge, son Son Sang-yeon is doing great. Studies hard, works hard; sure, he regularly beats the crap out of Park, but it’s actually just one of the things making her average. At least Son doesn’t hit her in the face—Park’s best friend, Park Seo-yoon, gets hit in the face and has to hide it.

The only thing Park’s got going for her at the start of the film is boyfriend Jung Yoon-seo. Except working class Park isn’t supposed to have a boyfriend. She’s not supposed to karaoke either. She also smokes. Her classmates think she’s a troublemaker and her parents—well, mom Lee Seung-yeon is worried about it. Dad Jung In-gi has long since decided all the hopes and dreams are on Son. Though we find out in the first act, when mom’s drunken brother Hyung Young-seon shows up and establishes she had the smarts as a kid and Hyung screwed it up for both of them as it turned out.

This visit from Hyung is one of the inciting actions. It kicks off the sibling comparison subplot—theme, theme seems more appropriate—while Park goes through her routines until something else interesting happens. She gets a new Chinese teacher. Instead of a boring straight-edge guy, it’s cigarette smoking—out the stairwell window no less—Kim Sae-byuk. Thanks to some drama in Park’s friendship with Park Seo-yoon, she unexpectedly has the opportunity to bond with follow flounderer Kim. Of course, Kim’s at least ten years older—or more, she’s on an extension of an already extended break from university—and she’s had some time to think about how damaging reality can be on eighth grade girls.

Except reality also doesn’t let Kim intervene. There’s this frangible quality to Kim and Park’s relationship and their scenes are probably the film’s best in terms of character development. The limited character development is generally fine—Park’s like fourteen, right? It’s a character study in how it’s studying how her character develops.

Because it’s a big year for Park. Six major events. Seven if you could a first kiss. One of them is national news and presumably the point of the precise 1994 setting. No spoilers but… turns out House is going to have deus ex machinas to its deus ex machinas. Kim’s script stays fairly loose given how much it’s got to lead the narrative–House’s lyricism is in Kim’s direction and maybe what the script skips, not the script itself. The story—in an epical sense—is anticlimactic; thanks to Kim’s direction, the film instead gets to be passively climatic. Or at least significantly cumulative.

Park’s performance is good. Very strong performance. Not… singular. You keep waiting for Kim to throw something at her she obviously can’t handle. There’s something askew about the narrative distance, just a bit, and it ends up hurting more than helping. Because all it helps with is some narrative shortcuts—Kim maintains the same narrative distance throughout, even when it means dropping entire plot lines in addition to an indifference to the passage of time. They’re things you can cover with some nice direction and Kim indeed makes it up with nice direction. Kang Guk-hyun’s photography is good, Zoe Sua Cho’s editing is good.

Matija Strnisa’s music is fine. It never really sweeps when it needs to sweep. Sound is really important in the film only there’s no precision in the score… it always feels vaguely like stock music. Good stock music. But stock music.

Most of House of Hummingbird is really good. Until Kim gets to the third act and panics. It’s not one of those things where the deus ex machina is necessarily bad—or even the second one—but the work from the first to the second isn’t there. Kim employs this combination of a twist and a bait and switch; it doesn’t seem craven but it does seem cravenly pragmatic. The film’s pace slows down in the second act then speeds up so much in the third—when calling a scene a scene (versus, say, a snapshot) is a stretch—it feels like they needed another fifteen minutes.

Lots of House of Hummingbird is excellent and the way it showcases Park’s performance is at times just the right coming-of-age picture exquisite. But the finish is a mess of a mess of a mess of a mess.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Written and directed by Kim Bora; director of photography, Kang Guk-hyun; edited by Zoe Sua Cho; music by Matija Strnisa; production designer, Kim Geun-a; costume designer, Yang Hee-hwa; produced by Zoe Sua Cho and Kim Bora; released by At9 Film.

Starring Park Ji-hu (Eun-hee), Kim Sae-byeok (Young-ji), Jeong In-gi (Eun-hee’s father), Lee Seung-yun (Eun-hee’s mother), Park Soo-yeon (Soo-hee), Son Sang-yeon (Dae-hoon), Park Seo-yoon (Ji-suk), Jung Yoon-seo (Ji-wan), Seol Hye-in (Yo-ri), and Hyung Young-seon (Eun-hee’s uncle).


Samurai Marathon (2019, Bernard Rose)

Samurai Marathon has some strange epilogue problems; all of a sudden the movie’s about marathons, when it turns out the marathon isn’t a particularly big deal in the story. It’s central to the story, but as a narrative tool. It provides the right stage for these characters. Though, with a title like Samurai Marathon, you’re thinking how important the marathon’s going to be.

It’s not.

Director (and co-screenwriter) Rose doesn’t rush through the marathon—no pun—but he keeps up a good clip. Especially after he establishes the shenanigans. At least two people in the marathon—high ranking samurai—are cheating, which is in addition to one of the runners being a spy, which is in addition to another of the runners being the Lord’s runaway daughter (Komatsu Nana). Satoh Takeru is the spy—raised from a child to be the Shogun’s spy in the Lord’s court, a life-long sleeper agent—Moriyama Mirai is the Lord’s favorite, who gets to marry Komatsu, who’s so thrilled with the prospect she runs away in the first place. Then there are nice guy runners Sometani Shôta and Joey Iwanaga, they’re just out to win and better their lives. Sometani might be able to elevate his position, which would help with the family, and Iwanaga needs a promotion to impress a girl.

It’s never soapy because Rose keeps Marathon grounded when it’s time for the dramatics. The first act also has a lot of Philip Glass music over fading shots, it’s very much a Philip Glass scored movie; he’s good at a lot of it, even some of the action, but if the main theme isn’t a nod to Liz Phair’s cover of Chopsticks… then it’s just Glass doing Chopsticks and not doing anything with it.

So. Could use a better theme.

There’s a cute subplot about old retired samurai Takenaka Naoto who bonds with former colleague’s son Wakabayashi Ruka. Rose seems very aware things are only going to look nice living in the 1850s for so long so he rushes through a bunch, which is particularly noticeable with Komatsu, whose female empowerment arc works because Komatsu’s appealing and pretty good and Rose’s direction is good, not because it’s a real arc. It’s less substantive than, say, that Takenaka and Wakabayashi arc, which is very much background and Komatsu is very much foreground.

Similarly, Satoh’s arc is a tad too pragmatic.

Not to mention the whole thing with Danny Huston, playing the U.S. Navy Admiral who shows up in Japan trying to start trade, which sets off cultural panic. Part of that panic is regional lord Hasegawa Hiroki deciding his men are too weak in the face of Colt revolvers so they need to do a thirty-six mile marathon. But the movie’s not about them running thirty-six miles in kimonos with a very rigid running stance, it’s about Satoh sounding the alarm on his spy channel without realizing Hasegawa just wants some pageantry not to revolt against the Shogun. So these samurai have to fight an invading force, turning it in a war movie. There’s a little bit of Western in it too, the way Rose establishes the characters; just not really any sports movie.

Until the end.

When it’s forced in and is absolutely bewildering.

But Samurai Marathon’s pretty good. Strong performances without any particular standouts, gorgeous photography from Ishizaka Takuro (love the primary color use), Glass-appropriate editing from Kamitsuna Mako, and decent direction from Rose. Solid sword fights.

I’m sure every fourteenth shot is an homage to one of Rose’s favorite Japanese movies, but adequately wraps them in a compelling story.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Bernard Rose; screenplay by Rose, Saitô Hiroshi, and Yamagishi Kikumi, based on a novel by Dobashi Akihiro; director of photography, Ishizaka Takuro; edited by Kamitsuna Mako; music by Philip Glass; production designer, Sasaki Takashi; costume designer, Wada Emi; produced by Iguchi Takashi, Ikegami Tsutakasa, Nakazawa Toshiaki, Ohno Takahiro, Sasaki Motoi, Yagi Seiji, Zushi Kensuke, and Jeremy Thomas; released by GAGA.

Starring Satoh Takeru (Jinnai), Komatsu Nana (Princess Yuki), Moriyama Mirai (Tsujimura), Sometani Shôta (Uesugi), Aoki Munetaka (Ueki), Kohata Ryu (Hayabusa), Koseki Yûta (Saburo), Fukami Motoki (Momose), Kato Shinsuke (Okajima), Joey Iwanaga (Kakizaki), Wakabayashi Ruka (Isuke), Tsutsui Mariko (Kiyo), and Takenaka Naoto (Mataemon).


Enter the Fat Dragon (2020, Tanigaki Kenji)

Enter the Fat Dragon is about Hong Kong super-cop Donnie Yen (already in a pound of makeup before he puts on the fat suit, presumably to look more age appropriate for love interest Niki Chow) who goes too far one too many times and finds himself busted down to the evidence room. After Chow dumps him—they’ve been together ten years and just now about to get married and he ruins their engagement photo shoot with his opening action sequence (it’s a bigger deal because she’s an actress whose profession he doesn’t respect)–Yen hits the junk food hard, which is clearly a big change for him since he started the movie junk food shaming subordinate then boss Louis Cheung for eating a slice of pineapple. Pretty soon he’s put on a hundred pounds; Yen started the movie at a cool one-fifty, because it’s in the opening narration.

It’s weird for a fifty-seven year-old man to talk to you about his weight at the start of a movie but whatever.

He’s clearly only supposed to be thirty-five.

Anyway. Dragon is a movie from 2020 where star producer hyphenate Yen thought it was a great idea to put on a fat suit and do wire-fu on an absolutely fantastic Japanese street set. It took a while to realize it was a set, but once I did, I kept getting distracted with the great detail in the background cast. Whoever designed the set, built it, directed the extras, just phenomenal work.

Lee Kin-wai’s the art director, so maybe it’s Lee Kin-wai’s department.

There’s an okay fight scene on the street set, going on the rooftops and such. Tanigaki’s direction gets most of the martial arts action, but doesn’t do anything interesting with it. It doesn’t showcase Yen well, which might more be because he doesn’t get any close-ups in the movie because of all the make-up he’s clearly wearing.

And some of the other action is fine. It’s too rush—Dragon runs just over ninety minutes and hurries through subplots. But it’s obvious we’re not missing much.

After a while—and all the junk food in the vending machine—Yen goes to Japan on his redemption assignment, a prisoner transfer (throughout Dragon feels like a mix of an eighties action movies, James Bond, and whatever else I’ve forgotten—just never Enter the Dragon, outside some forced references). The transfer goes wrong thanks to dirty Japanese cop Takenaka Naoto and Yen’s stuck in Japan—he also loses his luggage, leading him to ex-Hong Kong cop Wong Jing. Wong—who also cowrote—is a big lovable dope who loves the restaurant owner (Teresa Mo) across the street. Together they’re basically joint foster parents to lovable teen orphan Lin Qiunan. Every Chinese person Yen meets in Japan is great and every Japanese person he meets in Japan is a villain.

The main villain is Joey Iwanaga, who’s more enthusiastic than the role needs or the movie seems to care. He’s Yakuza and behind Yen’s prisoner transfer problems; he’s also Chow’s new boss.

It’s never good—though there are a handful of great laughs, most of them exceptionally cheap because Enter the Fat Dragon is slapstick. Some of the way they “get away” with Yen being clumsy in the fat suit is having him be clumsy before the fat suit, when he’s just in that pound of make-up. Most of the slapstick’s not good.

The end is a large scale action finale; not good either. There may even be a Superman: The Movie nod.

Dragon’s bad slapstick with a lot of cheap jokes. Not the expected ones, but still cheap ones.

Yen’s not able to even make micro-expressions in his makeup so he hasn’t got much of a performance. The martial arts stuff looks good enough it’d be nice if the movie had a good director.

Chow’s eh. Even though they’re even more age inappropriate, Jessica Jann—as Takenaka’s Chinese national interpreter but not accomplice—and Yen have more chemistry than he ever has with Chow. It’s not her fault; she’s kind of a villain? She’s shallow because she doesn’t want him to be a super-cop, which somehow manages to become a subplot, though I guess you need it for the reconciliation arc.

The first act kept having… not exactly potential, but enthusiastic possibilities only it never takes them on. Instead—outside that great street set and some technical aspects of the finale–Dragon never really does anything. It’s milquetoast.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Tanigaki Kenji; written by Chan Kin-Hung, Lui Koon-Nam, and Jing Wong; directors of photography, Fung Yuen-man and Ishizaka Takuro; edited by Lee Ka-wing; costume designer, Lee Pik-kwan; produced by Connie Wong and Donnie Yen; released by Mega-Vision Pictures.

Starring Donnie Yen (Fallon Zhu), Niki Chow (Chloe Song), Joey Iwanaga (Shimakura), Jing Wong (Thor), Teresa Mo (Charisma), Lin Qiunan (Little Tiger), Louis Cheung (Commander Huang), Takenaka Naoto (Inspector Endo), Jessica Jann (Maggie), and Watanabe Tetsu (Grandfather).


Ashfall (2019, Kim Byung-seo and Lee Hae-jun)

I don’t know how long it would’ve taken me to see Ashfall if it hadn’t been for a blogathon. Maybe never. While I’m a Ma Dong-seok fan because how can you not be, I’ve always been lukewarm on top-billed Lee Byung-hun. Lee’s not actually the lead; the lead is Ha Jung-woo, who I don’t follow. So, yeah… probably wouldn’t have seen Ashfall if I hadn’t specifically been looking for a disaster movie and also wanted to watch a (relatively) new South Korean movie.

So I’m glad I saw Ashfall, against the various odd. Writers and directors Kim Byung-seo and Lee Hae-jun don’t have many—or possibly any—original ideas in the film, which has a real-life volcano Baekdu Mountain erupting and threatening all life on the Korean Peninsula, North and South. Lee’s a North Korean double agent (or triple agent), it’s never clear. Possibly quadruple. Ma is a Korean-American scientist who finds himself drug into the government response because he’s the one who’s been trying to tell them the volcano is dangerous—I wonder if it’s the Korean equivalent of a Yellowstone “vulcanist”–for years. Ha is the Army bomb tech who’s got two days left on his compulsory military service. Ha’s a bit of an eccentric who can never remember his appointments with pregnant wife Suzy Bae, who doesn’t quite look sixteen years younger than Ha but definitely looks a little younger. They try to play it off with Ha being just immature but… he’s more like just unreliable. It’s unclear.

So the President (Choi Kwang-il very good in a small part) puts Jeon Hye-jin in charge of figuring out how to not go the way of Pompeii and she brings in Ma, who’s got a plan involving detonating nuclear warheads in a copper mine because Ma really likes Broken Arrow, but South Korea doesn’t have any nukes so they have to go steal some from North Korea even though they’re really friendly in this nearish, post-nuclear North Korea, but also pro-disarmament North Korea. Not important. What’s important is spy Lee knows where there are some nukes and they know where Lee’s at because he’s got a GPS tracker in him. The real Army is going in to extract him and go find some nukes, Ha’s team is there to get the nukes transferred into a special case to nuke the volcano.

It’s kind of a Lee and Ha buddy movie, also kind of not because they don’t have any common foes. Not really. The U.S. Army shows up to humiliate South Korea, which Lee finds really amusing, but they’re not really a plot impediment. They’re just something else the movie throws into the batter, albeit with a lot of overt subtexts. Robert Curtis Brown is actually find as the shitty American ambassador, which fooled me into thinking it wouldn’t be crappy American acting in a South Korean movie for the rest but then, of course, it was crappy American acting in a South Korean movie for the rest. Michael Ray is profoundly bad as the general. Though Jai Day could be worse as the guy on the ground.

So most of it’s just Lee and Ha being awful to one another while getting through “Mission: Impossible: Bomb Disposal Unit” with some earthquake stuff thrown in. There’s some great CGI disaster shots in Ashfall but there’s also a lot of bad directing during the disaster scenes too. Kim and Lee are far more successful combining narrative tropes than they are executing mix and match action set pieces. The first one, Ha in a car chase type sequence during the first earthquake, shows they clearly don’t have it cracked and nothing else in the film is ever any better. You eventually just have to give it a pass on that type of action because at least the visuals are interesting. Ashfall’s an odyssey. Lots of different locations and settings. And it often looks great—Kim Ji-yong’s photography, whoever does the CGI; Ashfall’s a fine looking film.

Well, except when it looks like Kim’s got the “soap opera mode” turned on and the artifice shines bright, which happens more in the second half than the first. The first has the most successful visual sequences. The second half is when it needs to have the action sequences….

Unfortunately, the directors just aren’t very good at directing action scenes. It would help immensely.

The acting’s all fine or better. Ma and Jeon have the worst parts of the top-billed but still give the best performances. The material’s so weak. It’s a wonder what they do with it. Lee’s good enough I’m going to have to give him another chance, but he’s also a lot better than Ha, which isn’t what the movie needs.

It’s too long by twenty minutes, but Ashfall’s more than a good enough action-spy-disaster movie.

1/4

CREDITS

Written and directed by Kim Byung-seo and Lee Hae-jun; director of photography, Kim Ji-yong; music by Bang Joon-seok; production designer, Kim Byung-han; produced by Kang Myung-chan; released by CJ Entertainment.

Starring Lee Byung-hun (Lee Joon-Pyeong), Ha Jung-woo (Jo In-Chang), Jeon Hye-jin (Jeon Yoo-Kyung), Ma Dong-seok (Kang Bong-Rae), Suzy Bae (Choi Ji-Young), Michael Ray (General Michaels), Robert Curtis Brown (Ambassador Wilson), and Choi Kwang-il as the President.



The Raid (2011, Gareth Evans), the international version

For the first forty-five minutes or so, The Raid is able to keep going on the idea lead Iko Uwais is going to be the most kick ass fighter in the movie. There a handful of short expository scenes throughout the film, plus a prologue, where Uwais prays, does some martial arts workouts (it’s all Indonesian martial arts in the film), kisses pregnant wife Fikha Effendi goodbye, has plot twist foreshadowing moment with dad Henky Solaiman, and is off to work—but otherwise it’s all action. For a while it’s shooting action, as Uwais and his fellow SWAT team members infiltrate a high-rise tenement run by drug lord Ray Sahetapy. Once it goes to martial arts action, however, it’s all martial arts action, finally letting Uwais deliver on what the prologue promised.

Except by then we’ve already seen Yayan Ruhian and the movie doesn’t even pretend Uwais is going to surpass Ruhian. When Uwais does finally get around to fighting him, it’s Donny Alamsyah teaming up with Uwais to fight Ruhian. Director Evans knows no one’s going to think Uwais can handle this one on his own, which sort of leaves Uwais an awkward action hero. He starts the movie a renegade—because he’s the only caring SWAT cop, which we know because they were ready to kill civilian Iang Darmawan for being around and Uwais steps in to save the guy—ends up doing the action scenes out of a couple different buddy cop movies, then ends it all solo, even though he’s with a literal cop buddy for it. But it never feels like Uwais is getting short-changed, at least not in the second half; the hero of the first half is Joe Taslim. He’s the sergeant and the only one who knows there’s something shady about the raid because he knows Pierre Gruno is a shady guy. Meanwhile Gruno doesn’t want cannon fodder like Uwais getting in his way, even though Gruno’s not a martial arts bad ass like everyone else in the movie.

The Taslim as lead thing is just weird because director Evans just assumes the audience is going to go for it. The Raid has some beautifully executed action sequences and some great fight choreography, but Evans’s best instinct is for what works with the cast. The movie starts with Uwais, sticks with Uwais—introducing Taslim as the leader and quickly establishing his relationship with Gruno—but when it’s time for Taslim to take on Ruhian, it’s not a supporting character’s fight scene. It’s the big hero’s fight scene.

Uwais’s arc sort of stalling out probably doesn’t help him maintain the spotlight. After the first big action sequence, Uwais has a whole “help wounded comrade” survive arc. Tegar Satrya’s the wounded comrade. The movie’s only ever established he’s a dick, which makes Uwais saving him somewhat more dramatic maybe, but no more entertaining to watch. Plus Satrya’s unlikable. Only he and Gruno are unlikable. Everyone else, good or bad, is enjoyable to watch. Like Alfridus Godfred, who’s basically just “Machete Guy,” because everyone gets their hands on a machete. Godfred’s terrifying, just a walking embodiment of probable dismemberment. But you want to see him, you want to see him more, as the film builds to whatever fight sequence he’s going to participate in. Again, Evans has great instincts for rising action scene tension.

The drama stuff, involving Uwais, Alamsyah, Gruno, Darmawan, and Sahetapy? Eh. Sahetapy’s is the best because Sahetapy’s a very evil hoot of a villain. Evans also knows how violent to get and not to get, when to show, when to tell, when to imply. But the drama? It’s take it or leave it. It’s not bad, just pedestrian and superfluous. Or should be.

See, while everyone who’s got a big fight scene—Taslim, Uwais, Alamsyah, and, obviously, Ruhian—is great at the fighting… Evans isn’t great at the directing. He’s good enough at it for a while, but when it’s the marathon Ruhian vs. Uwais and Alamsyah fight? It gets boring. Evans can showcase his actors’ skills but he can’t keep them compelling. Evans also edited the film and most of the editing is excellent, but the longer fight scenes—usually when there’s not scenery around to damage—the cuts are just between not great shots. It’s a bummer.

Nice photography from Matt Flannery and Dimas Imam Subhono, great music by Mike Shinoda and Joseph Trapanese (which is the difference between this international version and the original, plus an added subtitle, Redemption, because of rights issues). The Raid is about as good as you can get for an all-action martial arts movie with the barest hints of a real story and flat direction on the martial arts themselves. It’s very impressive work from Evans and company.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Written, directed, and edited by Gareth Evans; directors of photography, Matt Flannery and Dimas Imam Subhono; music by Mike Shinoda and Joseph Trapanese; produced by Ario Sagantoro; released by Sony Pictures Classics.

Starring Iko Uwais (Rama), Joe Taslim (Jaka), Donny Alamsyah (Andi), Yayan Ruhian (Mad Dog), Pierre Gruno (Wahyu), Ray Sahetapy (Tama), Tegar Satrya (Bowo), Iang Darmawan (Gofar), Eka ‘Piranha’ Rahmadia (Dagu), Verdi Solaiman (Budi), and Alfridus Godfred (Machete Gang #1).


Elite Squad (2007, José Padilha)

Elite Squad is about how hard it is to be a fascist stormtrooper in Rio de Janeiro, because not only do you have to deal with militarized criminals, corrupt cops, smooth-talking (and sexy) liberals, you also might have a wife who doesn’t like you being a fascist stormtrooper or some dead kid’s mom come ask you to help find his body because you left it, but the worst thing is how you yourself know it’s wrong to be a fascist stormtrooper and you can’t make the shakes go away.

The only way to make them go away is to fully commit and wouldn’t that development be the greatest tragedy, to watch narrator and “Elite Squad” captain Wagner Moura—it’s not called Elite Squad, it’s BOPE (for Batalhão de Operações Policiais Especiais), it’s like if SWAT were officially supposed to be a hit squad—anyway, wouldn’t it just be so sad to see Moura have to give in and be a BOPE officer forever. Because he wants out, but he couldn’t leave until they take out one last drug dealer (Fábio Lago), even if it costs him his marriage to Maria Ribeiro. Once he gets Lago, Ribeiro will take him back. We don’t know Ribeiro will take him back because she leaves his ass after he sticks his finger in her face and screams at her about being the boss of the house. But, in his narration, Moura seems sure. Because in his narration, Moura sounds like a sociopath, which actually sets him apart from the rest of the BOPE officers, who have maybe one scene with any personality and the rest of the time are just action figures.

Action figures without personality is better than the regular cops, who are either entirely corrupt or just plain psychopaths. You have to be more restrained to be a BOPE, so they can only take the sociopaths.

The movie’s actually the story of best friends, roomies, and rookie cops André Ramiro and Caio Junqueira, who are finding out just how corrupt things are with their fellow brothers in blue. Squad’s at its best when Junqueira’s got his whole odyssey through the cops’ corruption racket, how they’ve split up the city into protection zones and squabble with one another to extort the most money. It’s fascinating and beautifully paced. It helps Junqueira’s guide is dirty cop Milhem Cortaz; Cortaz is great during this part of the film. He falls apart later, when he, Junqueira, and Ramiro end up at the boot camp. The boot camp sequence, with Moura’s omnipresent narration, is… troubling. It’s where the film gradually forgets dehumanized fascist stormtroopers are bad and instead, with the narrator guiding the way, decides maybe they’re really cool. Especially when they’re breaking in the newbies.

Because it turns out the only solution to Rio’s crime problem is these BOPE soldiers. The criminals are militarized and every single one of the ones Moura tortures turns out to be lying to the cops, so you know, it’s the poors in the slums too. The corrupt cops you occasionally get to kill when they’re taking payoffs. The smooth-talking, sexy liberals are a big problem—Ramiro’s got an exhausting subplot about law school and liberal rich girl (Fernanda Machado) who runs an NGO in the slums to help the youths at least stay in school-they’re going to try to seduce you away from the real problem.

And what’s the real problem? Elite Squad isn’t one of those “asks tough questions” pro-fascist stormtrooper movies. It’s not one of those “doesn’t ask tough questions” ones either. It just kind of shrugs. It’s not even committed enough to do the “cops as a gang” thing.

Now, as it turns out, some of that lack of commitment to anything might have to do with co-writer Bráulio Mantovani and director Padilha deciding in post to make the movie about Moura and having him record the omnipresent narration and make some other cuts. I mean, it probably helps a lot—without Moura narrating Junqueira and Ramiro’s stories those portions of the film would be rather rough. Ramiro’s boring (though Machado’s good). Junqueira’s just an unpleasant prick. So even though Moura’s actual omnipresent, past-tense narration is really dumb—it occasionally drops in statements like, “So and so later told me,” and it’s like, sure, Jan—it’s a lot better than the thought of Ramiro and Junqueira unaccompanied.

Good direction from Padilha, great editing from Daniel Rezende, great photography from Lula Carvalho. If something goes wrong with either, it’s because of something Padilha’s doing, not Rezende’s cuts or Carvalho’s lights.

Elite Squad is kind of like a grim and gritty G.I. Joe toy commercial going off the rails when it realizes how messed up to be a fascist stormtrooper, but then somehow goes even more off the rails when it decides the coolness of being a fascist stormtrooper is better, actually.

The best performances are Cortaz, Lago, Machado, and Ribeiro (which is something because Ribeiro’s got a crap part). Ramiro’s less unlikable than Junqueira, but Junqueira’s probably better. Moura’s… fine. His narration performance isn’t great or good or even as fine as his onscreen one. If it were… might be better, might not matter. Padilha and Mantovani seemed to think it made the film better. No reason to assume they were wrong.

Just doesn’t make it good. Elite Squad’s a capable production team in search of a better project… with a better cast.

1.5/4★½

CREDITS

Directed by José Padilha; screenplay by Bráulio Mantovani, Padilha, and Rodrigo Pimentel, based on the book by André Batista, Pimentel, and Luiz Eduardo Soares; director of photography, Lula Carvalho; edited by Daniel Rezende; music by Pedro Bromfman; production designer, Tulé Peak; costume designer, Cláudia Kopke; produced by Padilha and Marcos Prado; released by Universal Pictures.

Starring Wagner Moura (Capitão Nascimento), André Ramiro (Aspirante Matias), Caio Junqueira (Neto), Milhem Cortaz (Capitão Fábio), Fernanda Machado (Maria), Maria Ribeiro (Rosane), and Fábio Lago (‘Baiano’).


Train to Busan (2016, Yeon Sang-ho)

The middle of Train to Busan is excellent. The first act is iffy, the ending is forced, but the middle is where the film excels. It’s where director Yeon just gets to do action, not getting slowed down with the humanity of it all (which he’s uneven on), and just executes these breathtaking action suspense sequences. Not just Yeon, editor Yang Jin-mo, photographer Lee Hyung-deok, composer Jang Young-gyu—and of course the actors. During the action suspense stuff, everyone does really well. Even lead Gong Yoo is good during these sequences and doesn’t have the overwhelmed look he gets the rest of the movie. Gong’s the only character with a real character arc—he goes from being a selfish hedge fund manager and bad dad to a hero in the fight against a zombie horde; he even becomes a better dad and reals everything he’s been missing in daughter Kim Su-an’s life. It’s ought to be emotionally devastating.

But Gong can’t do it. Being fair, it’s not like he gets any help from Yeon on it either, who doesn’t do a good job with directing the character stuff. Outside the action sequences, Yeon’s best directing is all on Ma Dong-seok and Jung Yu-mi, who play an expecting married couple caught up in the afore implied zombie apocalypse. Worse, Yeon’s adequate directing on Kim—as she experiences having this bad dad—falls apart as the film progresses. It’s like Yeon can’t pretend Busan’s about Gong and Kim patching things up thanks to a crisis situation and just sleepwalks the film through the series where they act like it’s working. Maybe it’s just a bad combination; the way Yeon directs the actors, the script, Gong’s flimsy performance. Because a lot of things do come together just right in other ways during Busan. Ma and Jung are wonderful. They’re both excellent—he’s a loving tough guy and she’s, well, okay, she’s just the loving tough guy’s pregnant wife, but she’s really good. And Ma’s able to carry the film when Gong can’t and the film acknowledges it, Gong acknowledges it. Yeon just doesn’t use it to further anything along. Top-billed Gong goes into the third act a better person but a thinner character; everyone else has more depth than him, with the possible exception of daughter Kim, just because she’s a plot device to keep him moving through the picture. Not in a craven way, just a very pragmatic one. Gong and Kim might be the A plot in the film, but all the other plots are more interesting, which becomes real obvious in the third act.

First there’s teen paramours Sohee and Choi Woo-sik, who barely get introduced during the film’s rapid-free introduction of the disaster movie cast—I mean, it’s zombies on a bullet train—have a little do at the beginning of the second act, but then get this layered C plot leading up to a heart-wrenching, loving conclusion. Very nice work from Choi and Sohee and from Yeon. He takes their C plot seriously. He also takes the out of nowhere and completely awesome conductor turns action hero subplot seriously. Jeong Seok-yong is fantastic in that part. Total surprise, but great pay-offs.

The supporting characters’ arcs always pay off (save businessman worm villain Kim Eui-sung’s arc, which goes on too long and gets too important) and always a with a little more enthusiasm than Gong and Kim get. Their family drama is basically red herring and not particularly tasty red herring because Gong’s so wanting at the dad stuff.

When Yeon makes it work—like with Gong, Ma, and Choi unintentionally becoming three musketeers and having to save people and get past zombies on the train and figure out how not to get bit doing it… great stuff. Great chemistry between the actors. It’s not just smooth, it’s easy. It feels like Yeon’s found the film’s vibe and he couldn’t possibility screw it up. He burns through all that newfound goodwill slow then fast; when he hits the third act, it’s a bunch of wide swings. They’d be fine, if they could just hit anything.

Train to Busan probably ends on its lowest point. It’s not bad, it’s got some strong performances, some great special effects—the “choreography” on the running, scary but silly zombies, is breathtaking—but Busan’s got problems pulling into the proverbial station. The third act’s just way too pat.

1.5/4★½

CREDITS

Directed by Yeon Sang-ho; written by Park Joo-suk; director of photography, Lee Hyung-deok; edited by Yang Jin-mo; music by Jang Young-gyu; production designer, Lee Mok-won; costume designers, Gweon Yu-jin and Im Seung-hee; produced by Lee Dong-ha; released by Next World Entertainment.

Starring Gong Yoo (Seok-woo), Ma Dong-seok (Sang-hwa), Choi Woo-sik (Yong-guk), Kim Su-an (Soo-an), Jung Yu-mi (Seong-kyeong), Sohee (Jin-hee), Kim Eui-sung (Yon-suk), Ye Soo-jung (In-gil), Park Myung-shin (Jong-gil), Choi Gwi-hwa (Homeless Man), Jeong Seok-yong (Captain of KTX), and Lee Joo-sil (Seok-woo’s Mother).


Man and two teenage girls looking into the distance

The Witch: Subversion (2018, Park Hoon-jung)

About halfway through The Witch: Subversion, I wondered why they’d opened with a flashback showing presumably chid witch Kim Ha-na escaping from her government “doctors.” The prologue introduces evil scientist lady Jo Min-soo and her chief fixer Park Hee-soon, it introduces the secret castle-like laboratory fortress, it has a lot of blood. The opening titles are a series of photographs hinting at the ground situation with the lab. Medieval witches bred in captivity, some Nazis, twentieth century science, little kids. Then the lab covered in blood and Jo berating her staff for failing their mission. Director Park, both in his direction and his script, doesn’t provide a lot of details but does provide a lot of information the audience isn’t going to misinterpret.

Even if it doesn’t end up being directly related to the photographs in the opening titles… it’s clear Kim is a dangerous, dangerous, dangerous individual.

So then when the movie jumps ahead ten years and Kim Ha-na has grown into Kim Da-mi, who seems to have no memory of her time as a child science experiment, but then finds herself propelled into the spotlight after going a Korean variation of “American Idol,” it seems like Witch might have gotten more mileage out of the audience being just as unsure of Kim’s potential as Kim. Park takes his time introducing some aspects of the character too, spending the first act playing with the audience’s expectations. It works out—exceedingly well thanks to the third act—but it’s a twisty road with some sharp curves.

Because Kim is in a Clark Kent situation. Kindly farmer Choi Jung-woo and wife Oh Mi-hee have taken her in after finding her unconscious and bloody in the yard. The worst behavior Kim ever exhibits is taking Choi’s truck into town to get cattle feed so he doesn’t have to worry about it and can take care of Oh, who’s sick. Kim’s best friend is Go Min-si, daughter of the police chief; Go’s the typical (somewhat) rebellious cop’s daughter while Kim’s the good girl. It’s a great situation for surprises, only there can’t exactly be surprises since the audience is primed for them (thanks to the prologue). So after Kim wins the regions on national television–getting there because she’s able to do an amazing magic trick, which freaks out Choi and Oh—and creepy hot boy Choi Woo-sik starts stalking her, then fixer Park shows back up… it’s clear the situation’s volatility is leading to an inevitable explosion.

Only director Park drags it out. So long. Park drags it through most of the second act, willingly losing all the energy and drama he got out of introducing Choi (not to mention Kim winning “Idol” with an absurdly successful pop rendition of “Danny Boy”), and sort of battering the supporting cast of good guys with some malice… but then he brings it all together for the finale. The third act of Witch pays off in ways you didn’t even think the movie would ever need to pay off in. The film’s a smorgasbord thrown into a kitchen sink, mixing horror, teen drama, sci-fi, action, superhero—but then what Park brings out of all those mixed ingredients in the third act is something else entirely. It’s awesome plotting, awesome execution. When Park finally does get around to the action sequences, he spices them with so much horror gore….

It’s simultaneously gruesome and spellbinding. All of a sudden Kim Chang-ju’s perfectly solid editing becomes breathtaking cutting.

So good.

Great lead performance from Kim. It’s all on her. She can’t miss a beat as she’s under everyone’s close observation—the secret government telekinetic assassin child who escaped too well and is going to get her family and friends kill for the trouble without ever knowing why exactly. Park directs Kim’s scenes like a character study, one with tragically too much action.

Choi’s an awesome villain, sufficiently wise and cruel beyond his teenage years, though not entirely unsympathetic because he’s Jo’s science project and it’s clear his keepers tormented him. Fixer Park was version 1.0 and never lets the newer generation forget he’s got the Power even if they have more power.

There’s an unnecessarily tacked-on epilogue to set up a sequel, which makes some intriguing promises, but it’s not like the movie hasn’t already got the audience juiced for the idea of the next chapter.

Park does a fantastic job with The Witch, which hinges entirely upon Kim and she makes the impossible pedestrian. It’s a really couple hours.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Written and directed by Park Hoon-jung; directors of photography, Young-ho Kim and Teo Lee; edited by Kim Chang-ju; music by Mowg; produced by Park and Yeon Young-sik; released by Warner Bros.

Starring Kim Da-mi (Ja-yoon), Choi Woo-shik (male witch), Go Min-si (Myung-hee) Choi Jung-woo (Ja-yoon’s father), Oh Mi-hee (Ja-yoon’s mother), Jo Min-soo (Dr. Baek), Park Hee-soon (Mr. Choi), Da-eun (female witch), and Kim Ha-na (Young Ja-yoon).


The Battle of Jangsari (2019, Kwak Kyung-taek and Kim Tae-hoon)

I’m curious enough about The Battle of Jangsari I think I’m going to read War in Korea: The Report of a Woman Combat Correspondent by Marguerite Higgins, which might have some information about the actual battle of Jangsa-ri because there’s nothing on the Google not about the movie. The big details, which you assume the movie isn’t going to change: 772 seventeen year-olds with ten days of boot camp being used a diversionary tactic at the battle of Incheon. Lambs to the slaughter, the unpleasant reality of war. Though the only ones talking about that reality are the guest stars.

See, Battle of Jangsari is not some awesome white savior but pseudo-woke adaptation of Higgins’s life story—the film’s not officially based on the book and makes sure to point out Megan Fox is playing a composite, not Higgins, which is why Fox doesn’t have a last name—it’s a jingoistic war movie. Just one with a couple down on their luck American actors doing inserts, possibly with digital backdrops. Jangsari uses a lot of digital backdrops, lot of all digital shots. Lot of really bad digital. Jangsari looks like the CG was done on a low quality render versus a high. Like a demo reel for the finished effects. Same goes for Komeil S. Hosseini’s music. It’s like… Hosseini didn’t see the movie, did he? He just sold them some music. Like temp music.

And Fox… Fox feels like a temp performance. Though not as much as George Eads feels like understudies run wild. Eads is real bad. Fox is just bad bad. The script’s terrible for Fox. It’s too brief to be terrible for Eads. He doesn’t even pretend to pretend to care about sounding like he knows what he’s talking about. His performance is a combination of impatience and indifference. It’s a great commentary on the U.S. involvement in the Korean War… they can’t even try to pretend to come up with a reasonable rational in 2020. Not even in a jingoistic, poorly lighted (Kim Sung-hwan’s photography is uncomfortably bad), weird war movie about slaughtered teenagers; the film never gives the number of survivors, which is just curious. Since the actual event is apparently untranslated or in some very obscure collection of female news articles… the film’s got no obligation to be honest. Why does it matter so much?

Because as a true story, Battle of Jangsari is an incompetent rendering of a compelling tragedy. It doesn’t matter if the kids’ sob stories are true, they’re all baldly manipulative. Choi Min-ho is the North Korean kid who moved South before the war and is now fighting to avenge his dead family, bombed by the North (while in the South). Choi’s got a North Korean accent he can do, which seems… odd. Would they really have had such a different accent back then? It seems like you’d want to be able to check it wasn’t creepy anti-North propaganda but then they run into some North Koreans who are butchering a cute puppy so you know they’re really bad people.

I’m super unclear on why these “let’s Raymond Burr these cash-hungry American stars into a Korean movie” movies exist. Are the American stars supposed to appeal to the Korean audience or to the international one. Because Fox is, like, never in a shot with any of the Korean stars. Eads maybe is in a room with one once. Fox is a small digital figure when she’s in a scene with the Korean cast. There’s clearly no crossover.

So pointless.

Anyway, the other main kid is Kim Sung-cheol. He’s a son-of-a-bitch thug bully sociopath and he’s the real hero. He gets a redemption arc after killing someone’s cousin. Like… South Korea’s got mandatory conscription so there’s some message it’s sending its audience and I want to know what. More than I want to see Kim and Choi become pals, because even though Jangsari’s only real chance is to go all in on the teen war melodrama… it does not. Lee Man-hee’s script avoids the kids whenever it can and when it can’t, they get not funny but kind of funny in a very sad, tragic, empathetic way set pieces.

Though those set pieces are far better than when directors Kwak and Kim get to do their lengthy first-person-shooter inspired war in the trenches sequence. They spend much of the first act with the shakiest shaky-cam they can get away with, all while it’s becoming obvious they doesn’t know how to compose any kind of shot, much less his fake Panavision one. Throw in Kim’s photography and it’s not a nice looking film. Not at all. It is visually unpleasant.

And not when there’s war gore. The film overdoes it on war gore. Because even though you feel inspired with love of country, you’re going to die in potentially gross ways.

Kim Myung-Min plays the commander. He’s… fine. I mean, he’s not bad. There’s something with his true story too but it’s not clear what because the postscript doesn’t give any real information. Kim In-kwon is the cool older guy. He’s… I mean, I don’t know. Could Battle of Jangsari have been better with a totally different crew but the same cast? Probably. None of the performances really stand out, good or bad, which is something of a blessing.

And, hey, got me interested in reading again right? I mean, maybe I’m curious enough… see, it’s a really compelling story. The movie just doesn’t do a good job telling it.

Except maybe all the puking in the ship as the kids go to the landing point. The puking is legit.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Kwak Kyung-taek and Kim Tae-hoon; written by Lee Man-hee, Brian Chung, and Cory Gustke; director of photography, Kim Sung-hwan; edited by Kim Chang-ju and Kim Woo-hyun; music by Komeil S. Hosseini; production designer, Lee Tae-hoon; costume designer, Sim Hyeon-seob; produced by Ko Sung-mi and Yang Jang-Hoon; released by Warner Bros.

Starring Choi Min-ho (Choi Sung-pil), Kim Sung-cheol (Ki Ha-ryun), Jang Ji-geon (Guk Man-deuk), Kim Myung-min (Lee Myung-Joon), Kwak Si-yang (Park Chan-nyeon), Kim In-kwon (Ryu Tae-seok), Lee Ho-jung (Moon Jong-nyeo), Lee Jae-wook (Lee Gae-tae), George Eads (Colonel Stephen), and Megan Fox (Maggie).


The Super Inframan (1975, Hua Shan)

Until the third act, Super Inframan at least keeps a brisk pace. The movie’s got almost nothing going for it—other than Chen Yung—yu frankly courageous very seventies score and even it’s a small blip of goodness, not a positive feature—but at least it moves. It doesn’t drag through the entire third act, there are a couple good (out of nowhere the fight choreography gets interesting) fight scenes, then some terrible fighting and some silliness, but once the good fight scenes are over, it starts to crawl. Though I assume the general annoyance at the pace slowing instead of the movie ending contributes.

Super Inframan is a low budget Chinese giant monster movie, only with the superhero, Inframan, able to grow big to fight the monsters. There’s a name for the genre; I’m not Googling. The miniatures—outside the opening scene city fire—are bad. But even bad, when it’s giant Inframan fighting a giant monster, Inframan is at its best. That fight is actually successful, whereas the good ones at the end both go bad for various plot-related reasons. They’re a bummer; the Inframan versus kanji is cool.

Danny Lee plays Inframan, which requires he wear a crafting-enhanced motorcycle helmet with antenna so he looks a little like a bug. He’s kind of a cyborg. It’s unclear what scientist Wang Hsieh’s doing to Lee during the transformation scene. Apparently he’s turning him very straightforwardly into a cyborg because there are these illustrated cards flashing over Lee’s body showing mechanical stuff… but they never talk about it. There are monsters to fight. Super Inframan doesn’t have childlike wonder it has childlike stupidity. Screenwriter Ni Kuang is targeting two year-olds and managing to talk down to them.

The effects are mostly silly illustrated lasers. There’s no ingenuity to how director Hua does any of it; he doesn’t even care what blonde-haired, thigh-high booted, supervillain dragon lady Terry Liu whips when she whips. She just likes to whip. She’s got a scantily clad sidekick (Dana) to keep dad awake and Lee’s a very square-jawed handsome leading man type for mom. Though Lee never does anything in the movie after the opening scene. He saves a baby in a fire. Later on, when he’s Inframan, he does all sorts of stuff but it’s probably not Lee and even if it were, Inframan doesn’t talk much (if ever) and so there’s no character development. It’s a fail on some really basic levels.

Still, besides Yuan Man-tzu, none of the acting is too terrible, all things considered, so maybe if it just knew when to stop being bad and roll the credits, Inframan would be all right. But not with the third act slowdown. Not after the fight gets too cartoony. It goes from being a fairly solid albeit boringly directed fight scene between Inframan and his fellow motorcycle-helmeted stunt men, only they’re supposed to be skeleton men to some bad exposition to Inframan doing this almost silent fight against these two robots with slinky missiles and stuff. It’s dumb, but it’s just about to be accidentally really nice and then it stops and the next fight scene is terrible. And the end of the movie’s too dumb too.

Inframan’s a big fail.

Oh, and Bruce Le—not Bruce Lee—is pretty good as Lee’s teammate who fights a monster. See, they’re not all giant, they’re usually just man-sized rubber-suit monsters. And they all talk smack. And Le fights one all by himself and you’re sympathetic to him because he’s being heroic, while Lee’s got the Inframan gig and is bad at it. Scientist Wang, charged with protecting the whole planet from these monsters, he doesn’t make a good choice with Lee. Le’s better. Just not square-jawed.

There’s nowhere near that much angst in the film; no one except monsters get hurt. Okay, one guy but he doesn’t count.

Inframan would be better if it were worse. Though maybe if they just got rid of the backflips it might be a little better too. The backflips are obnoxious.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Hua Shan; written by Ni Kuang; director of photography, Nishimoto Tadashi; edited by Chiang Hsing-Lung; music by Chen Yung-Yu; produced by Runme Shaw; released by Shaw Brothers Studio.

Starring Danny Lee (Rayma / Inframan), Wang Hsieh (Professor Liu Ying-Te), Terry Liu (Demon Princess Elizebub), Yuan Man-Tzu (Liu Mei-Mei), Dana (Demon Witch-Eye), Bruce Le (Sergeant Lu Hsiao-Lung), Chiang Yang (Liutenant Chu Chi-Kuang), and Lin Wen-Wei (Chu Ming).


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