The Forbidden Kingdom (2008)

Starring Jet Li, Jackie Chan, Michael Angarano, Collin Chou, Liu Yi-Fei, Li Bing-Bing, Ye Xiao-Keng, Wang De-Shun, Morgan Benoit

Directed by Rob Minkoff

Expectations: Curious. I don’t remember it being very good.

The Forbidden Kingdom is far from great, but it is worthy of respect and attention. It is an American-produced fantasy wuxia, and I’m having a hard time thinking of any other film that fits that bill. For that alone it is interesting, but it’s also the first (and so far only) film that stars both Jackie Chan and Jet Li. Martial arts fans will no doubt want to see that, especially since the film contains a great fight between the two Hong Kong legends. Jet Li even plays the Monkey King during the film’s intro and finale! There’s so much I enjoy about this movie, but no matter how much I want to love this film for what it is, its missteps are hard to overlook.

The major problem is that while it features Jackie and Jet, neither of them are the lead. That honor goes to Jason Tripitikas (Michael Angarano), an American teenager obsessed with Hong Kong movies. His room is adorned with posters of Shaw Brothers films and Bruce Lee, The Monkey Goes West plays on his TV, and he even has a Sega Dreamcast. It’s almost like the character was based on my own teenage years! I wouldn’t ask the shopkeeper for an “early Shaw Brothers movie featuring a guy doing leopard style,” though. I’ve also never said, “Sick! Ten Tigers of Kwantung,” although if I did find a copy of the Shaw classic in a secondhand store, I would say something like “Oh shit! Ten Tigers of Kwantung!” so perhaps they weren’t too far off the mark. 🙂

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Stephen reviews: The Sky Crawlers (2008)

skycrawlers_1The Sky Crawlers [スカイ・クロラ] (2008)

Starring Rinko Kikuchi, Ryo Kase, Chiaki Kuriyama, Shosuke Tanihara

Directed by Mamoru Oshii

Sky Crawlers is an odd one. Despite its premise of fighter pilots at war, it is very far from an action film, or even much of a war film. It is a Mamoru Oshii film, and that, perhaps, is the best description you can give it. Like most of Oshii’s films, it is slow and methodical, more concerned with savoring the moment than it is with telling a story. Of course, this is why Oshii’s films tend to be kind of boring. And while I did have a certain amount of interest in what was going to happen, it is a pretty damn boring film.

The biggest hurdle to get over is that the film makes no attempt to explain what’s happening. Sometimes playing it mysterious can help the mood of a story, making you keep watching to find the answers. But if it goes too far — and it definitely does in Sky Crawlers — it turns the film into a dragging, confusing affair that goes nowhere. Even the setting and tone of the film are drab and ponderous. Colors are muted, and the locales have an old fashioned 1950s feel to them, that is if the 1950s were sterile and emotionless. The technology is all over the place. People fly prop planes and watch black-and-white TVs with too much sepia. The pilots live in barracks that looks like a Victorian mansion. Yet they have computers and genetic engineering. The film is described as an alternate present, but that’s about the only time period I am certain it doesn’t take place in.

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Stephen reviews: Ghost in the Shell 2.0 (2008)

ghostintheshell20_1Ghost in the Shell 2.0 [攻殻機動隊 2.0 Kôkaku kidôtai 2.0] (2008)

Starring Atsuko Tanaka, Akio Ohtsuka, Kouichi Yamadera, Yutaka Nakano, Yoshiko Sakakibara, Tamio Ohki

Directed by Mamoru Oshii

I was not looking forward to the final entry in my journey through the Ghost in the Shell films. In fact, I almost decided to skip it over entirely. But in the end I decided to tough it out and watch this thing just for completion’s sake, or perhaps to give a warning to prospective viewers that might try to see this version instead of the original. Ghost in the Shell 2.0 is a touch-up of the 1995 film, much like what George Lucas did to the Star Wars trilogy just prior to the release of the prequels. (So it is strangely appropriate that Lucasfilm did the audio post-production here.) And just like Star Wars, the “upgrades” are useless at best, and obnoxious the rest of the time.

It could have been worse. I was expecting the entire thing to be redone in pure CG, but only a few scenes were desecrated that way. Most of the film does use the original cell animation. This means that most of the film is still intact and still enjoyable, even though the changes make it far less so than the original. With Star Wars you could make the argument that younger viewers would be unwilling to accept the old special effects, and maybe those retooled versions did attract some new fans that otherwise would have never watched them. But with Ghost in the Shell, there’s just no reason. The quality of animation has always had more to do with the amount of effort put into it than the technology available at the time. Just look up some of Max Fleischer’s Superman films from the ’40s; they’re extremely well animated even by today’s standards. Likewise, Ghost in the Shell is a gorgeous film already. Tinkering with it is a complete waste of time.

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Stephen reviews: Tokyo Gore Police (2008)

tokyogorepolice_1Tokyo Gore Police [東京残酷警察 Tōkyō Zankoku Keisatsu] (2008)

Starring Eihi Shiina, Itsuji Itao, Yukihide Benny, Jiji Bu, Ikuko Sawada, Cay Izumi

Directed by Yoshihiro Nishimura

This whole October I’ve been reviewing films that started strong and then trailed off into blandness by the end, so it was nice to finish out the month with a film that did the exact opposite. I avoided any information about this film other than its director, who also made Vampire Girl vs. Frankenstein Girl. That movie was bat-shit crazy right out of the gates, so I was rather disappointed when Tokyo Gore Police seemed so humdrum at first. Sure, it opened with a huge showdown between weird samurai-dressed cops and a hobo with a chainsaw arm, but this is supposed to be Japanese weird and it just wasn’t weird enough to impress. This is also horror comedy, so the poorly made martial arts sequences weren’t doing anything for me either.

The next part of the film went on a spree of the typical horror fare that makes me avoid the genre. Walking around in dark hallways in a vain attempt to amp up the tension. Boring. Although I did have to laugh at the main character’s undercover hooker costume, it was nowhere near enough to make up for all the sitting around pretending to take things seriously that was going on. What was enough to break the spell of boredom was the moment when the villain rips off the top of his head and sprouts gun barrels from his eyes. That was new.

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Dangerous Worry Dolls (2008)

dw1Dangerous Worry Dolls (2008)
AKA Dangerous Chucky Dolls, Deadly Chucky Dolls – Puppen des Todes (Germany)

Starring Jessica Morris, Meredith McClain, Cheri Themer, Deb Snyder, Anthony Dilio, Susan Ortiz, Ker’in Hayden, Paul Boukadakis, Renata Green-Gaber, Rebekah Crane

Directed by Charles Band

Expectations: Very low.

On the general scale:

On the B-movie scale:

Full Moon regularly trades in all kinds of depraved genre cinema, but for some reason I never expected a “women in prison” film from them, let alone one in 2008! And it’s a well-made film that doesn’t lean too hard into exploitative nudity? I’m shocked! Dangerous Worry Dolls is that and more, as I found it to be an effective and adequate horror movie as well. All I knew going into this one was the skull-headed doll coming out of a box on the cover of the DVD, so I had no reason to expect anything other than yet another variation on Puppet Master. But it’s surprisingly not like Puppet Master at all, instead pulling something of a bait and switch and delivering a possession horror flick rather than the 1,983,348th Full Moon film about killer dolls (although, it is kind of about killer dolls).

As the film opens, a group of inmates led by Kim (Meredith McClain) torture our lead, Eva (Jessica Morris). They want her to run drugs for them, but Eva is resisting. Kim always gets her way, though, and Eva’s life in the slammer is anything but rehabilitative. This all changes one day when her daughter comes to visit and gives her a small box containing Guatemalan Worry Dolls. You’re supposed to tell the dolls your worries and place them under your pillow before bed, and then the dolls take your worries away. In the film, Charles Band takes this idea and runs with it, creating one of his most cohesive and fun films of the 2000s.

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Let the Right One In (2008)

Let the Right One In [Låt den rätte komma in] (2008)

Starring Kåre Hedebrant, Lina Leandersson, Per Ragnar, Henrik Dahl, Karin Bergquist, Peter Carlberg, Ika Nord, Mikael Rahm, Karl-Robert Lindgren, Anders T. Peedu, Pale Olofsson

Directed by Tomas Alfredson

Expectations: Low.

I think it’s safe to say that I’m not a Tomas Alfredson fan. I recently tried to watch his most recent film, Tinker Tailer Soldier Spy, and aborted it after about an hour. I was getting absolutely nothing from its dry, boring tone and Gary Oldman’s Oscar-Nominated performance literally consisted of him just staring thoughtfully at the camera while people talked at him. He probably said four lines in that entire hour despite the film basically revolving around his character. Whatever. Despite this bad experience, I decided to try Alfredson’s earlier film, Let the Right One In, as nearly everyone had hailed it one of the greatest vampire films of the modern era, if not of all time. OK… it’s definitely unique, but “greatest” is a far sight from the truth.

Perhaps if you didn’t care for vampire films, then this would be the case. Let the Right One In is more a coming-of-age romantic drama than anything else, and while it does feature some incredibly horrific imagery at times, it mostly trades in the fears of junior high everyday life. It’s an interesting mix of realistic, bully-based horror, and the supernatural horror we’ve come to expect from the vampire film. It’s also stunningly well-shot, with many of the images suitable for framing in some artsy painter’s loft. For me, though, these elements never came together to form a film that I really cared about. While the film definitely succeeds in bringing vampires and genre films to the arthouse crowd, it does so by sacrificing a lot of the genre thrills… and damn it, that’s all the fun bits!

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Taken (2008)

Starring Liam Neeson, Maggie Grace, Leland Orser, Jon Gries, David Warshofsky, Holly Valance, Katie Cassidy, Xander Berkeley, Olivier Rabourdin, Gérard Watkins, Famke Janssen

Directed by Pierre Morel

Expectations: Very high. I’ve seen it before.

Like Liam Neeson’s character in the film, Taken is a quick-moving, no-bullshit, relentless force. With this film, director Pierre Morel has crafted one of the best modern action movies that didn’t come out of Asia, and watching it for the second time didn’t diminish its impact much at all. When I first checked this one out, about four years ago, I hadn’t seen a fantastic action movie in what seemed like forever. So when Taken took control of my senses and didn’t let go for a solid 90 minutes, I was very much impressed. This time around, I’m a different person. I now have a website, and through it I have rediscovered my love of Hong Kong action cinema, so this viewing of Taken was through slightly different glasses.

Taken is about an ex-government operative (Liam Neeson), whose job caused him to be away from his family most of the time. He’s now estranged from his wife and he barely knows his daughter. In an effort not to be an overprotective asshole, Neeson agrees to allow his daughter to travel to Paris, against his better judgment. And like a true gentleman, he never says “I told you so” when she and her friend get kidnapped within their first hour on the ground in France.

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