Stephen reviews: Harmony (2015)

Harmony [ハーモニー] (2015)

Starring Miyuki Sawashiro, Reina Ueda, Aya Suzaki, Yoshiko Sakakibara, Shin-ichiro Miki, Junpei Morita

Directed by Takashi Nakamura, Michael Arias


I didn’t have any expectations when I took a chance on Harmony, and that’s probably a good thing, because whatever expectations I had probably would have been way off base. I was surprised to see Michael Arias as co-director here, and like Tekkonkinkreet, his other anime film, Harmony is a weird philosophical journey, though nowhere near as intensely psychedelic. The other director, Takashi Nakamura, has been around the industry for quite a while, but hasn’t done much directing work. His most prominent film is A Tree of Palme, but he also directed the fantastic “Chicken Man and Red Neck” (AKA: Nightmare) segment of Robot Carnival, another trippy and moody story.

Coming from these two directors, I would have expected Harmony to be weirder than it is, but the film does have an ethereal quality that makes it feel like a light and airy dream. Set in a utopian future, it revolves around Tuan Kirie, a woman who survived a group suicide attempt in high school. The ringleader of the group was a mysterious girl named Miach Mihie, whose personality is a charismatic mixture of cheerful cynicism and rebellious hatred. Miach’s body was donated to science after the incident, but Tuan was seduced by Miach and grew up despising her homeland. Then some criminal mastermind causes a mass suicide to occur across the country that strongly reminds Tuan of Miach’s goals and agendas, and she sets off to uncover the truth of what is happening.

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Stephen reviews: Ghost in the Shell: Arise (2013)

Ghost in the Shell: Arise [攻殻機動隊 ARISE, Kōkaku Kidōtai Arise] (2013)

Starring Maaya Sakamoto, Kenichirou Matsuda, Tarasuke Shingaki, Ikkyuu Juku, Miyuki Sawashiro, Kazuya Nakai, Shunsuke Sakuya, Takurou Nakakuni, Yōji Ueda, Tomoyuki Dan, Mayumi Asano

Directed by Kazuchika Kise & Masahiko Murata (ep. 1), Atsushi Takeuchi (ep. 2), Kazuchika Kise (ep. 3), Susumu Kudo (ep. 4)


My journey through the Ghost in the Shell franchise took a snag with Arise, since I should have watched it before watching The New Movie, which is the proper conclusion of the Arise series. But, alas, I confused this series with Ghost in the Shell: Arise: Alternative Architecture, the re-edited for TV version of Arise, and I got the release dates messed up. If I had watched Arise first, it would have spared me a good deal of confusion with that film. But I still think both the series and the film would have been a bit confusing anyway. Of course this is Ghost in the Shell we’re talking about, so confusion is part of the package, but I think watching the film before the series even made the series more confusing.

Arise is a four-episode series, and each episode is a full hour long. Each one has a different crisis going on, but they all build up to finding the origins of a new computer virus called Fire-Starter (or maybe that’s the name of the programmer who designed it) that can rewrite a cyborg’s memories. At this point in the timeline, rewriting memories has never been done before, so the authorities are at a loss for how to combat the threat, and aren’t even convinced it’s actually possible.

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Stephen reviews: Ghost in the Shell: The New Movie (2015)

Ghost in the Shell: The New Movie [攻殻機動隊 新劇場版 Kōkaku Kidōtai Shin Gekijō-ban] (2015)
AKA Ghost in the Shell: The Rising

Starring Maaya Sakamoto, Kenichiro Matsuda, Mayumi Asano, Kazuya Nakai, Ikkyuu Juku, Miyuki Sawashiro, Shunsuke Sakuya, Takurou Nakakuni, Tarusuke Shingaki

Directed by Kazuya Nomura


A few years back I did a rundown of all the Ghost in the Shell films. Since then there have been a few more releases in the franchise, and I figured I would give them a glance before checking out the new live-action film slated to release at the end of March. Now it’s never a good idea to call your new movie in a long running franchise “The New Movie.” It just means that a couple of years later when a newer, higher profile production starring Scarlett Johansson comes out your no-longer-new movie just sounds dumb, and probably confusing for the audience. But I can’t stop some idiot without a scrap of originality from doing just that, so unfortunately we’re stuck with it.

In another really confusing move for a film so concerned about its timeliness, Ghost in the Shell: The It Was New a Couple Years Ago Movie is actually a prequel to the original story, showcasing how Major Motoko Kusanagi put together the team of operatives that work for Section 9. This far into the series we have only heard small bits about her past, mostly that she has been a cyborg since childhood, so I was a bit unconvinced that exploring her background was a good idea. We’ve gone this far without it. Why do we need it now? But the film does go a good way toward establishing some of the motivation for her decisions at the end of the first film, so I think they actually did find a pretty good reason to go back and examine her history.

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Shatter (1974)

shatter_1Shatter [奪命刺客] (1974)
AKA Call Him Mr. Shatter

Starring Stuart Whitman, Ti Lung, Lily Li Li-Li, Peter Cushing, Anton Diffring, Yemi Goodman Ajibade, Ko Hung, Keung Hon, James Ma Chim-Si, Lee Hoi-Sang, Lau Nga-Ying, Huang Pei-Chih, Lau Kar-Wing

Directed by Michael Carreras (who took over from Monte Hellman), with some help from Chang Cheh

Expectations: Low, but it has Ti Lung so…

onehalfstar


If you’ve ever wondered why the great Ti Lung never really made it big outside of Asia, look no further than the Shaw Brothers/Hammer Films co-production Shatter! I went into this movie assuming that Ti Lung played a character named Shatter, and that he was so named because his fists were so powerful they shattered the bones of his opponents. But no! Shatter is just some boring white dude (Stuart Whitman) who doesn’t really do anything to justify naming a movie after him. The filmmakers do their best in the editing to make Whitman look like Ti Lung’s equal in the fist fights, but the illusion was not convincing. The film flopped hard at the box office, as well, cutting the three-film contract between Shaw and Hammer short at two.

Shatter begins the film in East Africa, where he assassinates a top general with a gun concealed inside a camera (and fired by taking a picture). Shatter flees to Hong Kong to receive his payment for the job, but when he meets with his contact, Hans Leber (Anton Diffring), Hans gives him the runaround and refuses to pay him. This is where the plot kind of lost me. Chinese assassins are trying to kill Shatter, but I don’t know how they fit it exactly. Peter Cushing (in his final appearance for Hammer) and some goons show up to intimidate/beat up Shatter for some reason, and this is where Ti Lung and Lily Li enter the story. They take Shatter in to help him recuperate, and then magically Lily Li is deeply in love with him and Ti Lung is ready to risk his life for Shatter’s cause (which as far as I could tell was just to get paid). I don’t really understand why any of that happens, but it does.

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Kidnap (1974)

kidnap_1Kidnap [天網] (1974)

Starring Lo Lieh, Fan Mei-Sheng, Woo Gam, Tung Lam, Liu Wu-Chi, Lam Wai-Tiu, Cheng Miu, Yeung Chi-Hing, Li Min-Lang, Fung Ging-Man, Chiang Tao, Wang Hsieh, Chiang Nan, Wang Lai

Directed by Cheng Kang

Expectations: Very high. Been lookin’ forward to this one for a while.

threehalfstar


Kidnap opens by stating that it is a work of fiction, and that any resemblance to real persons is purely coincidental. But this is not the case at all. The film is based on a series of crimes that occurred in Hong Kong between 1959-1962, and came to be collectively known as “The Strange Case of the Three Wolves.” The general points of this true story make up the framework of Kidnap (and its 1989 remake Sentenced to Death — one of the earliest Category III Hong Kong films), so I imagine the disclaimer is merely there to allow the filmmakers to embellish certain elements to make a complete and satisfying film tragedy.

Lo Lieh plays Lung Wei, a soldier struggling to get by as a gas station attendant. He’s sick of his place in life and the constant humiliation from his boss and others. His friends are in similar situations. Chao Hai-Chuan (Fan Mei-Sheng) is a make-up artist for the film industry, but it doesn’t pay enough to cover all of his family’s bills so he has a second job doing make-up at a strip club. He becomes known as Hair-Sticking Chao because he is often asked to glue pubic hair onto the girls. Niu Ta Keng (Tung Lam) is a truck driver, but he can’t hold down a job because of his volatile temper. Finally, Tong Hsiao-Chiang (Lam Wai-Tiu) is a gambling addict who is in deep debt, with no way out in sight. No word on what he does for a living, but I got the impression that gambling was pretty much all he did.

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Stephen reviews: Hellevator: the Bottled Fools (2004)

hellevator_1Hellevator: the Bottled Fools [グシャノビンヅメ, Gusha no bindume] (2004)
AKA Gusher No Binds Me

Starring Luchino Fujisaki, Masato Tsujioka, Ikuma Saisho, Kae Minami, Yuko Takarada, Ryusuke Koshiba, Koji Yokooawa, Keisuke Urushizaki

Directed by Hiroki Yamaguchi


When I pick these live-action horror films to review I look for the most outlandish things I can find. Typical horror thrills don’t really thrill me, so if I don’t want to be bored out of my mind I need to track down more exotic fare. Maybe something comedic or deliberately campy, something that doesn’t try to take itself too seriously and presents its silliness with a knowing smile and a wink. Or at least something so batshit crazy that I can laugh at it. Thus when something with a title as puntastic as Hellevator caught my eye, I thought my search was over. But far from a campy cheese-fest, Hellevator is a dark and inventive psychological thriller that, much to my surprise, is genuinely good.

The movie clearly has a vision, and sees it play out with surprising depth. The imaginative world is what really captured my interest. It’s a sort of futuristic setting, but with very old-fashioned technology. There’s a weird combination of heavy industrial machinery with robot brain-in-a-jar toys for children. The society seems to exist solely inside a massive building with no idea that there is anything outside. And what is perhaps the most impressive aspect of the film is how well it establishes this world despite most of the movie taking place inside just one elevator.

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Crime Story (1993)

CrimeStory_1Crime Story [重案組] (1993)
AKA New Police Story, Hard to Die, Serious Crimes Squad, Police Story IV, Police Dragon

Starring Jackie Chan, Kent Cheng, Law Kar-Ying, Au-Yeung Pui-San, Christine Ng Wing-Mei, Poon Ling-Ling, Blacky Ko Sau-Leung, William Duen Wai-Lun, Ken Lo, Chung Fat, Wan Fat, Wan Seung-Lam, Stephen Chan Tak-Gwong

Directed by Kirk Wong

Expectations: Moderate.

threehalfstar


Crime Story represents another step forward for Jackie Chan. The film is gritty, realistic, and for the most part without comedy. This is not the recipe for the standard Jackie film, so many fans will be turned off. I understand the sentiment; when I first saw this as a teenager I had the same reaction. Consequently, Crime Story really took me by surprise this time around. It was a revelatory experience; I now see how the film is truly a fantastic piece of work in nearly every way. Where I once felt the film lacked enough “Jackie moments,” I now appreciate it as a wonderfully tense cop drama with a scrumptious Jackie cherry on top. The two styles are brought together incredibly well, too, with Kirk Wong ably guiding the camera to accentuate the exceptional, atypical action choreography from the Jackie Chan Stunt Team.

Inspector Eddie Chan (Jackie Chan) has recently lived through a traumatic encounter where he was forced to kill some men. He insists that he hasn’t been shaken by the experience, but his psychologist remains worried. Meanwhile, a criminal group led by corrupt cop Hung Ting-Bong (Kent Cheng) plans to kidnap the wealthy businessman Wong Yat-Fei (Law Kar-Ying). Eddie returns to active duty and is placed on the security detail to protect Wong, and because this is a movie, his best efforts are not enough to prevent the kidnapping.

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