Blu-Ray Review: The Boy and the Beast

Director: Mamoru Hosoda
Screenplay: Mamoru Hosoda
Starring: Aoi Miyazaki, Shôta Sometani, Kôji Yakusho
Country: Japan
Running Time: 119 min
Year: 2015
BBFC Certificate: 12


Mamoru Hosoda is a writer and director making a good name for himself in the anime world. After some TV work and a couple of films from TV franchises, he turned heads with The Girl Who Leapt Through Time and two of his subsequent films, Summer Wars and Wolf Children, which were all critical and commercial successes (in Japan at least). His latest film, The Boy and the Beast, is no different, attracting mainly positive reviews and becoming the second highest grossing release of 2015 in Japan. Being an anime fan and having enjoyed The Girl Who Leapt Through Time and Summer Wars quite a lot (I haven’t seen Wolf Children), it didn’t take much convincing for me to take up an offer of reviewing the film.

The Boy and the Beast sees a young boy, Ren (Aoi Miyazaki), become a runaway, living on the streets of Tokyo after his mother dies and his father (who had previously divorced his mother) doesn’t come forward to look after him. Whilst living rough, Ren bumps into Kumatetsu (Kôji Yakusho), a warrior beast who is looking for a pupil to train. Kumatetsu lives in a secret realm of the beasts, where he is in contention to become the new Lord, as the current Lord is due to leave this world and become a God. Kumatetsu is pig-headed and arrogant though, doing everything alone, and a worthy Lord must be a teacher with an heir as well as a mighty warrior.

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Trailer: Blade Runner 2029 – The ACTION Picture


 

The latest advert for Denis Villeneuve’s sequel to cult classic science-fiction-noir Blade Runner, is made for television. With that in mind, I never expected the tradition and history of this film to result in a generic shoot-em-up action picture, but hey, that is how one gets butts in seats. Of course, the trailer also gives more glimpses of the wonder post-urban world that cinematographer Roger Deakins and producer Ridley Scott magnificently deliver.

The internet is ‘freaking out’ and telling people not to watch this, as they embed it in the very-same ‘warning article.’ I am less caring about Spoilers, and more curious as to if this film will indeed be an action picture, and not an atmospheric, thoughtful science fiction film. Knowing Villeneuve (who recently made the nearly-gun-and-explosion-free Arrival, which brimmed with thoughtful sci-fi concepts and sophisticated film grammar, I am expecting the latter in spite of this bit of marketing.

 

Film Review: Elite Force: Operation Mekong

Director: Dante Lam
Screenplay: Kang Kei Chu, Dante Lam, Siu Kwan Lau, Eric Lin, Wai Ching Tam
Starring: Eddie Peng, Hanyu Zhang, Carl Ng, Ken Lo, Jonathan Wu, Pawarith Monkolpisit
Country: China, Hong Kong
Running Time: 123 min
Year: 2016
BBFC Certificate: 15


Only yesterday, in my review of Westfront 1918 and Kameradschaft, I wrote about my love it or hate it relationship with war or true life stories on film, and what do you know, another one that touches on both comes along a day later.

Elite Force: Operation Mekong (a.k.a. Operation Mekong or to use its original Chinese title, Mei Gong he xing dong), is not a war story as such, but it sees an elite task force battle against a drug baron with so much force it feels like one. It’s based on the actual ‘Mekong River massacre’, which happened in 2011, and the ensuing anti-drug operation that followed. In the tragic event, two merchant ships were attacked on the Mekong River on the borders of Myanmar (Burma) and Thailand, in the Golden Triangle area (a place synonymous with the drugs trade), and the 13 Chinese crew members were murdered. In the film, the crew members are initially suspected of being involved in drug smuggling after 900,000 meth pills are found on the scene. However, an informer tells them otherwise and when the merchants’ bodies are found and they look to have been executed, a special Chinese task force is deployed to investigate and arrest the drug baron suspected of ordering the massacre, Naw Khar (Pawarith Monkolpisit).

This is one of those cases I discussed yesterday when it very much feels like the grim reality of the actual events have been amped up and glossed over to make an exciting piece of entertainment, rather than a sensitive or intelligent examination of them. However, I was fully prepared for this after reading a few reviews and knowing the film was being marketed as a balls to the wall action film. As such, I tried to ignore any issues of authenticity or sensitivity and sat down to enjoy some explosive violence, the likes of which Hollywood rarely delivers anymore but Asia has been dishing out for decades.

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Blu-Ray Review: Doberman Cop

Director: Kinji Fukasaku
Screenplay: Kôji Takada
Based on a Gekiga by: Buronson
Starring: Shin’ichi Chiba, Janet Hatta, Eiko Matsuda, Hideo Murota, Hiroki Matsukata, Ryûji Katagiri
Country: Japan
Running Time: 90 min
Year: 1977
BBFC Certificate: 18


Arrow Video continue to delve into the Japanese genre movie vaults with Doberman Cop, a film that brings together two stalwarts they’ve previously featured, director Kinji Fukasaku (Battles Without Honour and Humanity, Battle Royale and Cops Vs Thugs, which I reviewed recently) and actor Shin’ichi “Sonny” Chiba (The Street Fighter, Kill Bill and Wolf Guy, which I reviewed recently). It’s not a film that saw much success when it came out and as such it’s never been released on video outside of Japan, so it’s great to see Arrow taking the effort to bring such an obscure, but nevertheless interesting title out over here. The two names I mentioned being behind the film were enough to get me interested, so I was keen to see if it was any good.

Doberman Cop is an action thriller based on a gekiga (a more story driven and adult form of manga) written by Buronson (better known for creating Fist of the North Star). Chiba plays Joji Kano, a cop who has recently moved from an Okinawan village in the country to the bright lights of Tokyo. A true country bumpkin, arriving with pet pig in tow, Kano is a fish out of water but tough enough to handle the mean streets of Tokyo. He falls quickly into trouble as he investigates the murder of a young woman in the nightlife district. Her body has been badly burnt, but the victim appears to be from Kano’s home town, which gives him added impetus to solve the crime. The plot further thickens as Kano believes the body was only made out to look like that of his neighbour and that the gangster Hidenori (Hiroki Matsukata) has something to do with it, along with Miki (Janet Hatta), a singer the gangster is grooming for success.

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Blu-Ray Review: Headshot

Director: Kimo Stamboel, Timo Tjahjanto
Screenplay: Timo Tjahjanto
Starring: Iko Uwais, Chelsea Islan, Sunny Pang
Country: Indonesia
Running Time: 118 min
Year: 2016
BBFC Certificate: 18


For decades it was Hong Kong that dominated the martial arts movie scene. From the genre’s beginnings, to the vast catalogue of the Shaw Brothers studio, to the success of Golden Harvest in the 80’s and 90’s, Hong Kong led the way in the genre and few other areas/countries managed to capture their success or level of quality. Hollywood had long tried, and although there are some great American action films, their depiction of martial arts has rarely felt as convincing or spectacular. As the new millennium moved on though, a boom in martial arts cinema caused by the success of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and The Matrix eventually led to Hong Kong’s action output growing tired. Too many releases tried to copy the formula of those hugely successful titles, but there was rarely the talent or money behind them to achieve their level of quality. As such, the Hong Kong martial arts scene has dried up somewhat, at least in terms of finding critical or commercial success overseas, bar one or two exceptions (the Ip Man films did quite well and have a lot of fans).

With Hong Kong’s martial arts crown slipping, one country has made a few great steps forward to snatch it from them, or rather leap through the air, shatter their skull and wrench the crown from their twitching, dying body. That country is Indonesia. They’ve been making action movies for a long time, but nothing all that notable until a Welsh director named Gareth Evans made his sophomore film there, Merantau (a.k.a. Merantau Warrior) alongside native Indonesian actor/action choreographer Iko Uwais. That film wasn’t a huge success, but it turned a few heads amongst action fans and paved the way for Evans and Uwais’ follow up, The Raid. That martial arts masterpiece blew the doors open with its brutal, intense action sequences and taut, visceral direction. Evans and Uwais returned three years later with The Raid 2, which many felt managed to improve on the first, by upping the scale and adding a more elaborate plot. Personally I slightly prefer the first film, but The Raid 2 is still undoubtedly one of the finest action films of the last twenty years, if not ever.

Eager to show he’s equally as important to that illustrious pair of films than Evans after his frustratingly wasted cameo in The Force Awakens, Uwais joins the ‘Mo Brothers’ (Kimo Stamboel and Timo Tjahjanto) for Headshot. Like in the Raid films, Uwais acts and choreographs the action with his Uwais Team and certainly proves his worth, as Headshot is one hell of a badass martial arts movie.

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Blu-Ray Review: Cops Vs Thugs

Director: Kinji Fukasaku
Screenplay: Kazuo Kasahara
Starring: Bunta Sugawara, Hiroki Matsukata, Tatsuo Umemiya, Mikio Narita
Country: Japan
Running Time: 101 min
Year: 1975
BBFC Certificate: 18


Reviewing Arrow Video’s Battles Without Honour and Humanity box set opened my eyes to the talents of Kinji Fukasaku beyond Battle Royale. Thankfully, the label is digging deeper into the Japanese director’s oeuvre with a handful of titles coming our way, including a set containing the New Battles Without Honour and Humanity series. Unfortunately, time constraints prevented me from being able to review that, but I did request a copy of Cops Vs Thugs to review, which is another crime thriller, made and released in between episodes of New Battles…

Cops Vs Thugs is actually based on true life crime stories researched by Kazuo Kasahara whilst he was writing the first Battles Without Honour and Humanity series. He’d heard accounts of police and yakuza becoming friends and wanted to put this idea in a film, but didn’t feel it fit into the world of the already convoluted saga he was initially creating. So, he ended up putting together a separate script, which Fukasaku would once again direct, called Cops Vs Thugs.

Set in Kurashima City in Japan in the early 60s, the film finds two yakuza gangs at loggerheads. The Kawade family are trying to build some political connections to make a lucrative business deal, but the Ohara family don’t like to see their rivals establishing a bigger stranglehold over the city than them, so use their strong connections with the police to put a stop to Kawade’s growth. Currently running the Ohara family whilst their boss is in prison, is Hirotani (Hiroki Matsukata). Fairly young and aggressive, he has no time for the political or business leanings of his enemy and has his eyes on permanent leadership over the Ohara family. He also shares a close friendship with Kuno (Bunta Sugawara), a police detective who helps him work his way up the ladder. Kuno may seem corrupt (and he is in the eyes of the law), but he believes that developing a bond with the yakuza and letting them get on with their own thing is the best way to keep the peace. His newly appointed superior disagrees though as gang warfare erupts and Kuno’s assistance with the yakuza causes more problems than its worth.

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DVD/Blu-Ray Review: Wolf Guy

Director: Kazuhiko Yamaguchi
Screenplay: Fumio Kônami
Based on a Manga Series by: Kazumasa Hirai
Starring: Shin’ichi (Sonny) Chiba, Kyôsuke Machida, Saburô Date
Country: Japan
Running Time: 86 min
Year: 1975
BBFC Certificate: 15


Wolf Guy is a Japanese action movie based on a manga series of the same name. Starring Shin’ichi “Sonny” Chiba at the height of his fame, it’s a low budget B-movie attempt to fuse western mythologies with Japanese genre sensibilities. Being a lover of trashy action and all things Japanese, this description sounded good to me, so I thought I’d check out Arrow Video’s new release of the film, which has never previously been available outside of Japan.

Chiba plays Akira Inugami, the last survivor of a clan of werewolves, now living in the big city using his lycanthropic skills to solve crimes. One night he witnesses the brutal murder of a seemingly crazed man at the hands of what appears to be a tiger demon, only semi-visable to Akira. When he looks further into what happened, he finds that the man was one of a group of thugs who were ordered by gang boss Manabe to rape a young woman called Miki. He finds both of them and tries to help Miki and stir up trouble with Manabe. This unravels further into a wacky plot where the bad guys try to get Akira’s blood to make their own werewolf and use Miki’s anger to assassinate people using the tiger demon acting out her vengeful thoughts!

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Blu-Ray Review: Hard Times

Director: Walter Hill
Screenplay: Walter Hill, Bryan Gindoff, Bruce Henstell
Starring: Charles Bronson, James Coburn, Jill Ireland, Strother Martin, Michael McGuire
Country: USA
Running Time: 93 min
Year: 1975
BBFC Certificate: 15


I‘ve always felt Walter Hill was an under-appreciated director. The latter half of his career is rather ropey, but the first half is loaded with taut genre classics. In particular I’m a huge fan of Driver, Hill’s ultra-pared down near art-house car chase movie. He followed that with cult classic The Warriors and also directed Eddie Murphy’s smash hit debut, 48 Hours, the excellent Southern Comfort and a few films I’ve heard good things about, but not seen, such as The Long Riders, Streets of Fire and Extreme Prejudice. I must admit though, I’d never heard of his debut film, Hard Times, until now that Eureka have added it to their illustrious Masters of Cinema collection. With my love of Hill’s early work and a great cast to back it up, I was keen to give it a watch.

Hard Times sees ageing drifter Chaney (Charles Bronson) roll into town (New Orleans during the Depression). He comes across Speed (James Coburn), a hustler who organises street fights and asks if he can set him up with one. Chaney proves to be an exceptionally strong fighter, despite his advancing years, so Speed spies a chance to make a lot of money. He offers to manage Chaney and set him up for a big fight with Jim Henry (Robert Tessier), who’s managed by the wealthy Gandil (Michael McGuire). Speed needs some capital though, so he takes out a loan and they win a warm up bout to get some extra cash. After Chaney beats Jim though and Gandil wants to match him up with another, better fighter, the pressure and money escalates. Speed isn’t so good at keeping hold of cash though and gets into trouble with loan sharks. The more honourable Chaney initially steps away from the situation, but when Speed’s life is truly threatened, he has to decide where his honour lies.

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Blu-Ray Review: Drunken Master

Director: Woo-Ping Yuen
Screenplay: Hua-An Hsi, See-Yuen Ng
Starring: Jackie Chan, Siu Tin Yuen, Jang Lee Hwang, Dean Shek, Linda Lin, Kau Lam
Country: Hong Kong
Running Time: 111 min
Year: 1978
BBFC Certificate: 15


Regular readers will know I love martial arts movies. My interest in the genre began back when I was a kid and I saw a cut version of Enter the Dragon on TV (nunchucks weren’t allowed to be shown in films/TV in the UK back then). I was already a fan of action movies, but the athleticism of the hand to hand combat blew me away. For some reason though (possibly because at the time I watched nothing but obvious classics and anything that got 5 stars in mainstream magazines like Empire) I didn’t think to delve further into the genre to find more titles that elicited such excitement. When I was 17 though, The Matrix came out and once again I found myself amazed by martial arts on film and not long after I finally picked up an old classic of the genre, Drunken Master. Well, as much as I enjoyed the other two films I mentioned, Drunken Master truly made my jaw drop. From then on there was no satiating my appetite for kung-fu movies and there still isn’t. It truly opened the doors to classic kung fu films for me and the film will always hold a special place in my heart because of it. Plus, few martial arts movies have bettered it in terms of action these near 40 years on. So, of course when Eureka announced Drunken Master was to be added to their prestigious Masters of Cinema label, I practically jumped for joy.

The film’s lead character, played by the incomparable Jackie Chan, is the Chinese folk hero Wong Fei-Hung. Still an arrogant teenager, his martial arts skills are pretty good, but he’s not quite the master he is set to become in later years and wastes his talents on goofing around, picking street fights and making unwanted advances on young women. After getting into trouble one too many times, his father Kei-Ying (Kau Lam) sends him away to be set straight by his uncle, who’s nicknamed Beggar So (Siu Tin Yuen). This master of the 8-Drunken Genii kung-fu is notorious for crippling his students, so Fei-Hung tries his best to escape, but ends up having to endure So’s brutal training regime. When both of them are humiliated though and Fei-Hung discovers the true strength of drunken boxing, the young master must prove himself against the highly skilled assassin Yim Tit-sam (Jang Lee Hwang).

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Blu-Ray Review: Brotherhood of Blades

Director: Yang Lu
Screenplay: Yang Lu, Chen Shu
Starring: Chen Chang, Shih-Chieh Chin, Dong-xue Li, Shi Shi Liu, Yuan Nie, Qianyuan Wang
Country: China
Running Time: 112 min
Year: 2014
BBFC Certificate: 15


Decent new martial arts films from China or Hong Kong have been getting thin on the ground of late after the boom they enjoyed in the early 2000’s. That’s why I got very excited when the recent Call of Heroes ended up meeting my high expectations. Hot on its heels (in terms of a UK release date at least) is Brotherhood of Blades. Directed by Yang Lu, a newcomer to action movies, and featuring none of the big martial arts stars, I was nonetheless excited to check it out, as word of mouth was good and the marketing made it look impressive.

Brotherhood of Blades is set in late Ming Dynasty China and follows three friends, Shen Lian (Chen Chang), Lu Jianxing (Qianyuan Wang) and Jin Yichuan (Dong-xue Li), who are skilled members of the Imperial Assassins. All three of them are struggling with personal problems which could be solved with a large amount of money. Well, luckily for Shen Lian, when the three assassins are assigned with the mission of killing Wei Zhongxian (Shih-Chieh Chin), Shen is offered the chance of taking bags full of gold away with him in return for faking Wei’s death. When he takes up the offer however, he makes life incredibly difficult and dangerous for himself and his two friends as their honesty is put into question and they realise they’re being used as pawns in a much larger game.

This film didn’t impress me quite as much as Call of Heroes did unfortunately, but it’s still a solid entry to the wuxia genre. It’s handsomely presented – lit and shot beautifully with some lavish period production design.

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Blu-Ray Review: Lone Wolf and Cub – Criterion Collection

Directors: Kenji Misumi, Buichi Saitô (Baby Cart in Peril), Yoshiyuki Kuroda (White Heaven in Hell)
Screenplays: Kazuo Koike, Tsutomu Nakamura (Baby Cart in the Land of Demons and White Heaven in Hell)
Based on a Manga Series by: Kazuo Koike, Goseki Kojima
Starring: Tomisaburo Wakayama, Akihiro Tomikawa, Minoru Ôki, Tatsuo Endô, Tokio Oki, Keiko Fujita
Country: Japan
Running Time: 83, 81, 89, 81, 89, 83 min
Years: 1972-74
BBFC Certificate: 18


Being a lover of Japanese cinema, particularly period samurai movies, as well as being a lover of genre films in general, the Lone Wolf and Cub series is one I’m very familiar with. Saying that, I’d previously only seen the first two instalments before now. So there was never any doubt in my mind about taking the Criterion Collection up on their offer of a set of screeners to review their lavish set of all 6 films. These are as follows; Sword Of Vengeance, Baby Cart At The River Styx, Baby Cart To Hades, Baby Cart In Peril, Baby Cart In The Land Of Demons and White Heaven In Hell. Also included is Shogun Assassin, a 1980 film made up of all the sex and violence from the first two films with dodgy dubbing and a voiceover to tie them together into something suitable for the midnight movie crowd.

Now, when reviewing box sets I tend to review each title separately, but here I’ve decided to do one long write-up for the whole collection. Maybe I’m just being lazy, but I feel the films are so consistent in terms of cast and crew, as well as quality, there isn’t a great need to separate each film from one another. I also think I’d find it hard to differentiate all of the films after chain watching all six over a couple of weeks. Without wanting to kick off my review with a criticism when I love the set so much, the stories do get a little ‘samey’.

Speaking of stories, the first film, Sword Of Vengeance, sets everything up for the rest of the series through a series of flashbacks. Itto Ogami (Tomisaburo Wakayama) is the Shogun Executioner during turbulent times in Japan. He is ordered to execute countless lords for the sake of the Shogunate. In the opening scene we even see him decapitating a young child lord. Despite his disturbing profession, Itto is a good, honest man though, with a wife, Azami (Keiko Fujita), and child, Daigoro (Akihiro Tomikawa). One night, after Azami confesses that she worries Itto’s work has cursed him and their family, she is murdered by members of the Yagyu clan, led by Retsudo, who also tries to frame Itto for treason as he is hell bent on the Yagyu taking the role of Shogun Executioner. Itto manages to escape death, but is forced to exile, roaming Japan as an assassin for hire, on the “demon road to hell” on a path of vengeance. He is not alone though. Before he leaves, he gives his toddler son a choice. He lays out a sword and a ball for him to crawl towards. The sword symbolises joining him on this journey to a life of murder and vengeance and the ball represents a journey to heaven to be with his mother. Of course, Daigoro chooses the sword and the two set off to wander the lands.

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