Some Thoughts On: March Comes In Like A Lion (2016) Season 1

On March 25, 2018 I completed the first season of an anime called March Comes In Like A Lion (3-gatsu no Lion), and it was a slough of an anime to get through. As usual, these entries are simply scattershot thoughts on a anime series I completed. They shouldn’t be treated as a review, even if I do give the anime a rating at the end of these blogs. I should fix that, but future me shall worry about that.

In short, March Comes In Like A Lion is a about a professional shogi player named Rei Kiriyama working out life issues…for the first half that is. Eventually turning into something else in the second half that is just as equally mixed in results, but minus as many jarring tonal shifts. As a drama, when the anime decides to be one, it can be rather good at points. My favorite moments in the anime are easily the more human moments in the series. Simple scenes like Rei crying in front a kindergartner when attending to her wound while simplistic gets along across a lot proficiently. Granted that moment got spoiled when a character explains it, but it’s a moment I consider a good example of its drama.

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This post ended up longer than expected, so some random gifs to liven up the wall of text.

Another one of my favorite moment includes when Rei sister goes over to his apartment for the second time, and have a discussion about love. Followed by a great analogy how the tension in the room makes Rei feels like he’s sinking deeper into the bottom of the ocean together with his sister. Moments like these where the drama is allowed to be absorbed, and not be ruined by the over the top comedy are what I felt March Comes In Like A Lion should have attempted to capture more off. During these moments, I found myself engaged, and invested by what the characters were going through in their life. By the way it depicted, and developed the characters, the anime mostly didn’t feel overbearing into making me feel a certain emotion. Characters acted over the top, but never bordered in making any of them comedic relief. Clearly doing its best in providing all the characters a fair depiction while never overlooking their less favorable aspects. Heck, even the series most dislikable character, Masamune Gotou, isn’t made out to be a typical evil adult that anime typically makes for teenage led anime series.

My favorite character of the anime, as far as season 1 is concerned, is Rei’s teacher Takashi Hayashida. He felt the most balanced character in the anime never hurting the tone, and when the character was used for comedic effect it worked all the time. Takashi is presented as a goofball teacher who cares for Rei’s well being. So whenever he’s on screen he isn’t hurting the narrative in any form. Even when a scene with Takashi is strictly use for comedic purposes it usually involves him helping Rei with school related activities, or giving him life advice. Unlike the rest of the characters, Takashi doesn’t hide any of his issues behind his profession. Being a blunt character in the best possible way.

The other character I liked a lot, even though she could be a bitch, is Kyouko Kouda (Rei’s sister). Whenever it delved into her past, understanding why she acts negatively towards Rei while not excused comes off as reasonable from the way it’s written. It’s a complex past, along with the complex way Rei, and Kyouko feel about each other when they interact. Yet, it didn’t turn into a trainwreck. Too often in anime doing the “water under the bridge” between two character with a troubled history feels unearned in getting a resolution. In March Comes In Like A Lion, I won’t spoil if the messy family bond get fixed, but what it did with it worked exceptionally because it didn’t use any manipulative writing tricks.

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I know, this looks cool.

The series delves into depression without ever going in the realm of silliness. Doing well in depicting how depression is an ongoing cycle that’s difficult to break, even when given support. Now given this, using over the top comedy to contrast Rei’s current mindset against the world he lives in on paper is fine. In the first episode, there was a jarring tonal shift since most of the episode is somber. However, I allowed it a free pass so to say on the jarring shift because it wasn’t preceded by a heavily dramatic scene. Unfortunately, it the rule that when a well written, heavily dramatic scene is finished it should be followed by a over the comedic scene. Yes, it often kills tension, and counteracts the dramatic aspect of the series.

 

For example, my least favorite episode of season 1 is easily episode 6 since it’s simply Rei Kiriyama pitying himself, and monologuing about his troubles for about 14 minutes. Man, was this boring because Rei’s says a lot, and little of what he says during those 14 minutes is meaningful. After a barrage of drama ending the episode with Rei taking Hinata (a middle schooler girl whose Rei’s friend) to eat a burger would have been a fine place to end the episode. Before the closing credits showed up, the somber mood was slowly transitioning from the barrage of snooze inducing self-pitying dialogue into a more balance tone. However, there were still about 3 minutes left ruining a generally downer of an episode with a over the top comedy scene. The final impression left on me is that it was funny, despite the barrage of dialogue of Rei issues.

Another thing the comedy negatively contribute are pointless additions to the anime. I also blame some of these on director Akiyuki Shinbou who kept them in for no good reason. One of these pointless addition is giving cats monologues. What’s the point of spending any sort of screen time hearing (or reading for you sub readers) the cats constantly screaming being hungry. This joke loses its luster after its done the fifth time, but kept in because why not. I’m sure a anime series that is filled with the brim of characters tackling personal, life, and family issues really needs cats to scream about wanting food.

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This anime can have some great visuals when it wants too.

From a directing standpoint, there’s also bolds words that appear on screen for comedic effects. These bold words, and some chibi character usage, work well enough in the comedic scenes. Aside from it being expected, if it wanted too, it could also use those bold word effect for something else other than comedy. Like empathizing how a character sees a shogi move as a devastating action. Cats screaming in English (or whatever language you’re watching it in) about wanting food doesn’t have multiple purposes for an anime that wants to be a good drama.

When it comes to direction of Akiyuki Shinbo it’s usually fine. I just wish it wasn’t as obvious at points in the anime when Shinbo felt uninspired, or disinterested in the material. One thing that isn’t consistent, besides the jarring tonal shift, are the visual analogies. They appear infrequently in the anime making their usage be more desired. The visual analogy work, like when Rei faces off against Shimada at his house, and seeing a visuals of strong currents rushing towards him while playing shogi gets across the intensity Rei feels in a match. If used more consistently it would have had a more consistent visual style for the entire season.

Another issue is a tendency to have dialogue be a deterrent to his visual storytelling. Like Rei seeing a nature program about Cuckoo birds, and learns how the Cuckoo bird surrogate parents keep feeding them even though they already out grew their nest. This is preceded by Rei’s backstory which I can’t get into because spoilers, ah. Now, when Rei saw the Cuckoo bird program, making a connection that how he saw himself by the impression he made was easy to connect. It was subtle, until the point Rei himself spells it out for the viewer. This happens repeatedly through the series. It works as much as it fails so it wavers in quality.

The writing is simply bad because it’s unfocus. While it does characterization well, it’s obvious it has too many characters, and doesn’t know what to do with them. There’s several supporting characters in the first half that are largely absent in the second half. Forgetting about them as easily as Rei has. Making it central theme about family sticking together in the first half ultimately feels hollow when it ends up nowhere. For about the last 6 episodes, it forgets that the central character should be Rei, and focuses on a character named Shimada for the majority of those episodes. Since it actually went somewhere meaningful forgiving the lack of a direction is forgiven. However, it’s not overlooked since even subplots, like one revolving around Hinata having a crush on a boy, and Rei befriending that boy simply just end despite how much time it dedicates to them.

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Don’t worry, you don’t need context.

On the technical side of things it’s competent. There’s nothing impressive generally about the animation until it does a visual analogies for some memorable imagery. Voice acting in the English dub is good, and I needed it to get through episodes 6, and 11 because if I saw these two episodes sub I would have fallen asleep. Music is fine, but the first opening, and first ending song are by Bump of Chicken are pretty good. As opposed to the 2nd opening track of the anime that’s easily the weakest piece of music in the series, but then pulls a 180 with a song by Kenshi Yonezu called Orion which is great. Then again, that’s just simply the Kenshi Yonezu fanboy in me loving to listen to his stuff whenever it appears.

Aside from characters, and characterization everything else in the anime just feels competently made. It’s a messy type of competent where one moment it grips you, and another moment completely loses your attention. When it wants to be it’s a good drama without eliciting any emotion from the viewer with any cheap writing tricks. At it worse, it’s simply an overbearing comedy that deteriorates the impact of the drama with a lack of focus that can’t handle the many subplots it wants. However, it’s those good dramatic moments that got me through to the end. It’s those scenes that kept me coming back regardless of its subject matter because it was compelling. If it means putting up with a overall sloppy package of an anime I’ll more than gladly put up with the some of its parts for the good stuff. It is nonetheless a disappointing watch. Ain’t no changing that.

If I were to rate March Comes In Like A Lion, I would give it a 6 out 10.

 

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Cinema-Maniac: G4: Option Zero (1997) Review

Action movies typically isn’t the genre people will go digging through for a good story, and Option Zero (1997) will remind some of why. Directed by Dante Lam, whom I consider to be China equivalent to Michael Bay, has been sloppy in the films I’ve seen him helm. A common problem with Lam films is starting off good, and losing steam as it goes on as so far every film I’ve seen from Dante Lam feels longer than it should be. Also just like Michael Bay thing for explosions, Dante Lam also has knack for making action sequences pop out from the screen. It’s a skill of his that can be seen in the film in one lengthy action sequence in Option Zero, but unfortunately the faults that plague his movies are more present here than his strengths in his feature film debut as a director.

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Anthony Wong: See the wood on the ship? Emote more than that.

Option Zero follows the private lives of some of its key members of the HK police force known as SB, and how that affects their work in the field. It’s unfortunate that all these cops live very boring lives. For starter, when the SB officers aren’t talking about anything job related they are either talking about sex, or romantic relationships. In a movie that is just 11 minutes shy from being two hours this cycle of job procedural, sex jokes, and romantic drama dialogue wears you out. Aside from these things, there’s nothing the film characters choose to talk about. If a conversation seems like it’s going to break this cycle, it goes right back into its familiar routine.

Whenever Option Zero focuses on the SB officers doing their jobs all the task feel largely unrelated to one another in the overarching story. Capture a group of criminals dead or alive in a hotel, go chase after a criminal with valuable information, stop a gun deal, and finally protect someone important. Even if you spot the small connection, it doesn’t build up to the climatic action sequence in any form. A shootout that occurs in a container port 55 minutes into the movie, has a South Korean criminal, who evaded the SB officers in a previous action scene, killing off a major character only to have that same Korean criminal disappear for over 40 minutes before haphazardly just putting him in the climatic action sequence. You go almost half the film length without any build up towards that encounter, and when you do get to the climax there’s no confirmation if this South Korean criminal is the same that killed off a major character earlier. All the action sequences simply happen without the excitement one would hope these sequences would provide.

Now the meat of the film’s plot focus on romantic relationships. Initially, I was on board to see how the SB officers job would take a toll in their personal lives, and all it amount to was serviceable. It has too many subplots that get scatter around during the run time, half of which don’t even bother to get properly resolve. For example, there’s a love triangle in the movie involving our lead character Ben Chan (Julian Cheung), Chan’s current civilian girlfriend Kelly (Carman Lee), and Monica Leung (Monica Chan) who is basically Chan’s best friend. Monica who gets written like a third wheel, gets mentioned pretty early in the movie, and gets established as clearly having a crush on Chan. Leading to some interesting scenes like when Chan gets asked by Kelly if she’s the first person he’ll think about if he’s dying. Other times, it’s the soap opera treatment of “you never notice my feelings, or will you will never love me like I want you to”. This plotline, despite becoming the focal point of the movie as it progresses simply ends. There’s also no mention if Monica relationship with another character evolve into anything more romantic affecting another subplot by having no resolution.

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Missing here is some cheesy music.

Other characters in the film also suffer the same fate of repetitive dialogue; talk about their job, talk about sex, and than talk about relationship to reiterate once again. Dialogue related to the SB officer work is purely exposition while anything related to sex is a jab at comedy. Unfortunately, the jab at comedy eventually stop to become the equivalent of a bad high school drama. Something gets brought up that appears to be a big deal only to be forgotten about over time. Like Chan’s partner Sing (Anthony Wong) having a things for boats, and not using that characteristic of Sing for anything even though a scene is dedicated to it, or the fact Sing wife possibly cheated on him is also dropped. The supporting characters are only here to provide some fluff to the story since it’s main plotline doesn’t have much to sustain itself during the runtime. Getting multiple scenes of characters simply hanging around each other like friends. Despite the length the film would go to provide characterization, even forgetting it’s an action film for half of it runtime, characters still come out feeling flat by the end.

Finally, the G4 unit finally pops up in the final stretches of the film, and it’s simply more melodrama. The part of this being a police unit that only takes in the best is expected dialogue, but after many melodramatic scenes it would be nice to return to its characters prioritizing something else on their minds besides love. It’s this circling around the same three topic that make these characters shallow. Without going in depth into what it chooses to talk about everything feels detached emotionally. The film can whatever amount of time it wants on developing it cast, but without adding, or evolving their plotline beyond their introduction the effort seems wasteful. It has it mind set on something, but doesn’t bother developing it to the best it can be.

Julian Cheung is our stiff leading man in G4: Option Zero. He’s unable to express much, even during the action sequences he even struggle to show the most basic signs of struggle. However, seeing Cheung being passable in a action scene is better than him trying to emote in the dramatic scenes. His delivery lacks any emphasis on emotion typically wearing the same expression from beginning to end. His other co-star like Alex Cheung Hung On also suffers from the same issues. However, since Alex Cheung isn’t on screen frequently he’s comes off as passable instead of stiff like Julian Cheung. Carman Lee, and Monica Lee fare a little bit better, though not by much. Their dialogue delivery as the emotional support, or unrequited love is what you would expect them to be. They’re fine, and unlike their male co-stars, can carry a scene by their acting chops.

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Anthony Wong in the film best action sequence

My favorite character in the movie was Sing, and that’s because Anthony Wong was playing the character, even in a lesser effort in terms of acting, is still far memorable than any of his co stars. He’s the most believable with his performance encompassing his middle aged, slightly overweight, physical appearance of a veteran officer. Wong unique appearance easily makes him stand out among the more physically fit looking cast. By becoming Sing, Anthony Wong provides the film only moments of good drama, and comedy since he bothers to mold the weakness of the script into a strength. Easily being able to do the drama, the comedy, and action side of his role convincingly. Unlike the script, Anthony Wong found a way to balance the different tone into his performance never feeling out of character in anything he does. Anthony Wong is the only actor in the film who gives a good performance despite the weak material he was working with. There’s also a cameo from Michael Wong whom starred in the previous two installments of this franchise. His appearance adds nothing to the movie. There is one other actor, Paul Cheng Jang Bong whom plays a South Korean criminal who acts as a sorta-foil, but his performance is onenote leaving little to add on.

The film’s best action sequence is easily a lengthy shootout in a container port. It’s the only action sequence that feels inspired, and where the action choreography shines. Asides from keeping the action movie, the gunplay here in particular have more emphasizes in bullets piercing the background. In this container port action sequence, there’s a very brief shotgun bout between a SB officer played by Anthony Wong, and a Korean criminal that’s easily the highlight of the sequence. Not only do both characters barely miss each other, but quickly have to evade each other gun fire in from a close range. If the film had more dynamic gunfights like this brief shotgun bout than it would have been worth sitting through 40 plus minutes of characters moping around about love, or death worth it. Aside from this container port shootout, the action sequences are sub-par, even the climax itself doesn’t high end things on a high note.

Option Zero is a messy movie that will leave action junkie, or anyone craving a good story unsatisfied. There’s not enough to the story to keep events interesting, and the action sequences only once rises above your average action movie from China/Hong Kong, but even it’s one good action sequence won’t keep you around. Anthony Wong is the one positive G4: Option Zero has to offer, and that’s only when he’s onscreen. Being an example of melodrama, romance, and action not coming together like it should. 

Rating: 4/10

Cinema-Manic: Savage Dog (2017) Review

There was a time where straight to home video action films were the absolute worst the action genre could provide. Nowadays the notion hasn’t changed, but there’s been a steady rise in quality thanks to talented filmmakers knowing what to provide to its audience, and without it feeling like a cheap cash grab. One actor in the forefront in these straight to home video action movies is Scott Adkins. An actor who appears in some big budget movies in bit roles like Doctor Strange (2016), and The Expendable 2 (2012), but is mostly stuck in lower budget efforts. The trait most of these lower budget efforts share is Scott Adkins always work with competent directors whom also share his desire to make the best possible film despite their limitations. Sometime they work as mindless entertainment like with Ninja 2: Shadow of A Tear (2013), and Close Range (2015), while duds like El Gringo (2012), and Eliminators (2016) being just as common in his filmography. One thing his film can be counted on for is supplying good action sequences, and thankfully Savage Dogs falls into the category of Adkins better films.

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Adkins: “They won’t release me until I improve my acting.”

Savage Dog is set in 1959 Indochina, following Martin Tilman (Scott Adkins), who is due for release from Den-Dhin-Chan labor camp run by Vietnamese warlords and European war criminals, but the corrupt forces running the jail will do everything in their power to keep him locked down. Telling a simplistic story in its heart, but aiming higher than it could achieve. The first half of the film focuses more on developing characters, and trying to tell a story about finding a purpose. Using the first half purely as buildup to eventually rein in the carnage the second half of the movie will be dedicated too. While the sentiment is admirable, the execution is simplistic on all front. Characters are typically shady, and money hungry all in the effort to evade consequences for betraying their country. It sounds like these characters have depth to them. In actuality, that’s about as far is it goes for developing most of it characters whom just meant to add to Tilman body count. It easier to root for our ex-British officer whom is hunted down by his own country when one of your villains is a ex-Nazi. Also, characters reiterating multiple time their all ex whatever of a certain country helps too.

In spite of a runtime of 94 minutes, the pacing is generally slow, but works in service of the movie. This does negatively affect some aspect of the story, like Martin Tilman romantic relationship that is meant to be the dramatic core of the film doesn’t work. Most of the bonding between Tilman, and his lover is glossed over. The other aspect of Martin Tilman that is tackle somewhat well is Tilman looking for purpose in his life. Evolving from his introduction into a satisfactory character arc. Aspects of Tilman past are kept limited, and to the point. Supporting characters are fine. Isabelle (Juju Chan) arc revolves around her believing in the good of people, and keeping that belief. She doesn’t grow beyond her introduction, and mostly serves the role of just being the love interest. One other positive could be Isabelle doesn’t become a damsel in distress, but at the same time it means she becomes useless to the story after the first half of the movie is done.

The only other character left to mention is Valentine (Keith David) whom also serves the film narrator whenever needed. Out of everything in the writing, Valentine narration is easily its biggest fault. Whereas the previous faults mention contributed somewhat positively to the bigger picture, Valentine’s narration could have been entirely removed. Sometimes stating the obvious, and sometime summarizing the purpose of a scene in a couple of sentences. For example, when there’s a scene of Isabelle, and Tilman relationship becoming more romantic, Valentine tells the audience exactly what they’re seeing. Same with when Tilman is brutally fighting as a bouncer against some unwelcome guest, and Valentine’s states (paraphrasing) that something savage has awaken within Tilman. Quite insightful in stating the obvious. Most silly of all, is given the fate of Valentine’s character he’s basically narrating from beyond the grave leading to some confusion. Sure, revealing the death of Valentine’s character could be considered a spoiler, but given his only purpose is get to killed, and provide pointless narration it’s better to have you prepare beforehand about that odd narrative choice.

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So, this is Colonel Sanders with a clean shave.

Lastly, the second half of the film is where it finally picks up. Seeing Tilman embraces his anger, and seeing him kill a dozen, or so people like a one man army is it biggest strength. Narratively, the first half did a competently enough job to make this action onslaught satisfying. The hero is easy to root for, and the villains are easily detestable. Unfortunately, the first half is a hindrance with very little interesting things happening. Since the material never raises to the level it wants, die hard fans of Scott Adkins movies, or action junkies can endure the rough first half, but the average viewer isn’t as likely to stick around. For those who stick around will receive everything they could want from a lower budget action film starring Scott Adkins, even if it takes a while to get there.

Scott Adkins takes the lead as Martin Tilman. In terms of acting, Adkins takes a wholly serious role. Unlike his usual film, his cockiness that he portrays in some of his roles is absent here. Removing part of his charm that can be found in El Gringo (2012), and Accident Man (2018). When wholly serious, Adkins limited range of acting shows a lot, especially in the first half. Struggling to displays the years of violence, and yearning for a purpose Tilman is meant to have. Some of Adkins weak acting is hidden by having him participate in some fight sequences in the first half where believing Adkins is a expert fighter is easy to accept. Believing Adkins is a lost soul of sort is a pill not as easy to swallow. However, in the second half of the film, Adkins improves as the stunt work, and action sequences he’s good as performing become more prevalent than his dramatic chops. Adkins lack of strong acting chops is forgivable since the second half highlights his strength better.

Supporting cast on the other hand come off as decent. For instant, Juju Chan whom plays Isabelle does good all her dramatic scenes. It’s night, and day how easily Juju Chan can emote in her delivery compare to Adkins. However, she’s also quite a capable actress able to work within Adkin limited dramatic chops to make a scene work better than it should. Just like the rest of the cast, the only issue I have with her acting is it’s mostly one note. Keith David whom plays Valentine delivers a good performance. He’s able to be more loose since his character isn’t as serious compare to everyone else. However, his best part of acting is when he’s narrating, giving some power to his narration, even if it’s ultimately pointless.

Finally, the cast of evildoers themselves. Vladimir Kulich is easily the best actor among them, though because of bad writing he reiterates the same dialogue multiple times throughout the film. He performs the role of a ex-Nazi without hamming it up, or being cartoonish. Marko Zaror plays another one of the baddie, as well as being the only other person, besides Cung Le, who can stand evenly with Adkins. Performance wise, both Zaror, and Cung Le are mostly one note. Cung Le has to come across as intimidating while Zaror somewhat has to give off a similar vibe. They do decently since they aren’t required to express much in their characters like Scott Adkins.

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Explosions make Adkins sleepy.

When it comes to action, Savage Dog tries to be more realistic than Adkins usual film. Just a bit so the usual high kicks, and more elaborate martial art fight sequences Adkins is known for are tone down. Yet, don’t become a detriment to the action sequences. What partially makes up for this is sometime seeing gore within the action sequences. There’s isn’t a lot of gore, but when seeing the sight of a man face getting blown off by a shotgun at point blank range in a close up shot, or seeing Adkins decapitate someone’s head what gore it has truly satisfies. Not to forget some of the gore special effects are surprisingly good despite the film obvious, limited resources.

The fight sequences in the film are easily the standout of the film. They make up a majority of the action bits. Fight sequences in the first half are entirely one sided having Adkins easily beat whoever he’s fighting. Adkins fight are more of a bare-knuckle variety mostly punching his opponent with maybe the occasional kick. Just when you think you’re tire of seeing similar looking fight scenes. The second half allows Adkins to fight tougher opponent on two occasion. One of them is against Cung Le who gives Adkins a good beating. Unfortunately, the fight between Cung Le, and Adkins ends anticlimactically. Granted, the way it ends makes sense in context, but it just strange it chooses this moment to go against action movies norms.

The final confrontation between Adkins, and Marko Zaror is also a good one. It’s the only time in the film where Adkins has to overcome a foe whom has the upperhand in a fight. Unlike previous fights, the “realism” is slightly more removed here whenever both Adkins, and Zaror trade blows with knives. It doesn’t end the film on a bang since nothing elaborate is done in the film, but it does provide the film final moment of gore before ending which is probably one of the best moments in Scott Adkins career.

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How much get can I get for this head?

The other action set pieces typically have Adkins blowing holes into peoples with guns, and barely getting hit with bullets non-stop. Gunplay is more interesting than your average action movie with Adkin seemingly being quick enough to dodge gunfire regardless of what gun is being used against him. Seeing someone get shot is made satisfying when seeing blood squib explode in small amount. Only negative to the action sequence requiring Adkins basically taking out an entire army at their base is the low budget here becomes the most apparent. Throughout the movie, the small budget is concealed well enough, but this particular set piece instead of seeing dozen of men go after Adkins at once you likely see at most 3, or 4 go after Adkins. It doesn’t feel like Adkins took out an entire army. However, that’s a small complaint against it. Jesse V. Johnson knows how to crafts, and capture action satisfactory.

Savage Dog ambition is never met, but is far better than your average straight to home video action film. Offering a refreshing setting, solid acting among the cast, and some good action sequences with the rare moments of gore to enjoy once the carnage kicks in. It’s a not a film I would give a general recommendation since it’s faults easily can ruin the experience for an average viewer. At 94 minutes, for fans of action cinema craving for another solid flick, or fans of Scott Adkins this is recommended to check out.

6/10

Cinema-Maniac: Outlaw: Gangster VIP 2 (1968) Review

The first Outlaw: Gangster VIP film was a very pleasant surprise the first time I saw it. I’ve never heard anything about it, nor ever seen any promotional material going into it. It’s this blind viewing experience that made me discover quite the hidden gem of a Yakuza film. Now, considering the fact I knew this was a franchise, and the ambiguous ending for the first movie I still consider the first entry a great standalone feature film. It was open enough where a debate towards the outcome of it conclusion could be considered valid. This sequel had a tall order to follow, and for the first act at least, it was doing a good job building on the foundation the original film laid out. However, after the first act was done it reverted back to the same familiar structure, and plot points that could be found in the original, just less potent this time around.

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I’m here to audition for the one arm swordsman role.

Outlaw: Gangster VIP 2 continues the story of Goro (Tetsuya Watari) who wants to put his dark past behind, and live an honest man’s life. This is a direct sequel so knowing what happens in the first film is a blessing, and a curse. A blessing in the since Goro is a developed character could be even more fleshed out. Seeing him interact with people in this film holds greater significance with a better understanding of Goro from the previous movie. For the first act, this sequel serves up being a good extension to the franchise. Seeing Goro for the first time in his life attempting to be an honest man, and seeing him struggling through that is compelling. The same also applies to him attempting to stay committed to his new lifestyle no matter the difficulty given to him. It’s also the best part of the movie since Goro is shown tackling, and failing to overcome new challenges as a straight man. If the film expanded further on this than the foreseeable events later on in the story would have packed some kind of a punch.

Another positive to the film is the subplot revolving around Goro, and Yukiko (Chieko Matsubara) attempting to make money to take care of fatally ill friend Yumeko (Kayo Matsuo) is potent. Unlike the other plot threads within the sequel, this feels the most potent in its effort to tell another good story in Goro life. It’s not a rethread of something that happened in a previous movie, and it offers some kind of continuity that when the subplot ends it is actually meaningful. This subplot also leads to the best dramatic scene in the film, but unfortunately saying more than that would require spoiling it.

There is one area where this sequel somewhat does better than the original, and that’s fleshing out Yukiko. She still isn’t given much to do, but her contribution to the story adds something to the story. Without Yukiko, certain scenes discussing love wouldn’t work. So yes, by simply having Yukiko exist, and be the love interest the film discussion on love doesn’t come off as phoned in. Other than that, expect the same song, and dance for the rest of the material.

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Goro: “Finally, someone who doesn’t put their arm through sleeves like me!”

The negative side of this being a direct sequel is a bigger of suspension of disbelief when viewing the film. Asking the viewer to overlook the fact that Goro met the same type of people, and similar events happened around him is quite a stretch. Another drawback is the inevitable boredom of that you’ve seen these same exact scenes, and same exact outcome in the previous film. Offering little surprises in the direction the story. Once you determine what exactly this sequel is going to rethread you’ll have less of a reason to be invested in it.

Perhaps the biggest drawback is the ending of the movie. Unlike the original film where its ambiguous nature could be debated in spite of there being sequels. Here, the ending comes off as more conclusive as you’ll see a bloodied Goro finally stopped moving, and lay down on the floor. The first time when I saw this kind of ending it left a good impression. I was willing to overlook the fact in the original Outlaw: Gangster VIP there was an entire franchise, but here, I simply can’t for the reasons stated earlier. It rethread too much material so expecting me to leave the movie with the same kind of meaningful experience is not earned.

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Finally, Goro the Wise finally learned to properly put on a jacket.

Tetsuya Watari once again takes the leading role as Goro, and he does another good job in the film. It’s largely feels like a repeat of his performance of the first movie, but his portrayal is nonetheless still effective. His line delivery is commanding, and sincere at a moment notice. He’s convincing in the action sequences he performs with the psychical appearance to boot too. Yes, Tetsuya Watari still refuses to put his arms into his jackets just like the first movie in a good amount of scenes which is going to be mentioned as long as he does. Just like in the previous movie, his chemistry with the cast is on point again in this sequel.

Returning actors like Chieko Matsubara who plays Yukiko, and Shoki Fukae both whom play new character named Mori are dependable again. However, seeing them play their respective characters with little new to offer makes them easily fade into the background. Unlike Tetsuya Watari whose in the front, and center of not only the dramatic scenes, but also the action sequences allowing him to shine despite the rethread. Both Matsubara, and Fukae aren’t granted that luxury since they did little in the first movie, and here it’s no different.

New actors whom do appear in the movie have the drawback of playing similar characters already portrayed in the first film. Making any new actor who plays a similar character from the previous film seem like an imitation. The only bright side of the new cast is obviously Kunie Tanaka who plays Katsuji Nemoto, an underachieving yakuza with a grudge against Goro. His character is sympathetic without crossing into over acting. Unlike Goro whom once again fallen back into the Yakuza lifestyle, Tanaka plays a more dynamic character that is allow to mix it up how he interacts with Watari. While it’s unfortunate Tanaka didn’t receive more screen time in the film, he makes the most of what he is given. Everyone else though, I could hardly remember to be honest.

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Now that I about it, nearly every time Goro puts his arms through his jackets sleeves he gets into a fight. Symbolic?

Following from the first movie, the technical aspect as still top notch, but not of the same quality. This time, Keiichi Ozawa takes over for the rest of the franchise. Like his actors, Ozawa feels too much like he’s impersonating Toshio Masuda (the first Outlaw: Gangster VIP director) style, tone, and just about everything. The one thing Ozawa maintains as his own is his lack subtlety in the drama department. Going as far in one scene to have a ray of light shine down on a dying character, and in another scene showing footage of an raging avalanche once Goro decides to go back to working in the Yakuza. You know, visual allegory to help hammer in the point of the scene you’re watching. The action sequences are once again good to witness. Some setpieces feel like a rehash of the original, but again, for a late 60s film the action sequences hold up pretty well. Music isn’t as memorable as in the first film, but is serviceable working favor of the movie. Though the climax lacks the impactful score found that made the first film end on a high note.

Outlaw: Gangster VIP 2 is more of the same. The same characters, the same story, and the same themes. However, the acting, the action, and some of the new story beats are just as good, even if crossing into familiar territory diminishes their impact. I do feel this sequel while sadly a downgrade from the first entry is still not bad a movie. It’s positives overweighs the negatives, but viewing it for yourself is another story. For me, I was enthusiastic going into the film anticipating where the next chapter of Goro life would take him, and it wasn’t much different from the first movie. It left me disappointed by the time the ending title card came up, but one thing I was not was angry, nor did I felt like my time was wasted. Outlaw: Gangster VIP 2 has a specific goal of capturing the same magic of the original film, and it was a decent attempt at it. Succeeding in what it aimed to do, even if it wasn’t the homerun it was expected it to be.

Rating: 7/10

Some Thoughts On: Hell Girl (2005 – 2006) Season 1

So on March 4, 2018 I finally finished the first season of an anime series called Hell Girl. Needless to say since a review of any kind is currently out of the question sharing some general thoughts on the first season would be fine for an anime post. It’ll also help me collect some quick thoughts of mine for the first season since right now my feelings on Hell Girl is scattershot.

Hell Girl is an episodic anime that for the first half focuses on Hell Girl dealing in a business to seek vengeance for its clients. Hell Girl clients are given a straw doll with a red thread around its neck, and if pulled the person they seek vengeance on will go to Hell. However, the subject also seeking vengeance will also go to Hell after they die. The second half of Hell Girl involves a permanent character in Hajime, a freelance reporter attempting to put a stop to Hell Girl divine punishment on those who seek it.

The premise was instantly alluring to me. Seeing what kind scenarios; both the silly, and serious, would be presented to me was a joy to experience. Offering not so much variety in the kind of characters it depicted. Early on in Hell Girl, it uses simple archetypes to make sure you sympathize for the person seeking vengeance leading to many who die early on being one dimensional. Doesn’t help matter either when some of them are just cartoonishly evil, like in one episode a woman drowns puppies. Yep, it’ll scoop to that level sometime to make viewers sympathize with the person seeking vengeance. This eventually changes as the series goes on, but early on the cartoonish, repetitive nature of these characters is still felt.

Everytime it showed someone death scene it was amusing to say the least. None of these death scenes are scary as 24 minutes is not enough time for this series to be scary. A couple of brief minutes to have Hell Girl, and The Three Straws (Hell Girl’s partners basically) to take a soul won’t set up a fearful atmosphere. It will give you some silly moments, like episode 6 death scene which hysterically boils down to shaming a person to death. There also episode 18 providing the sight of seeing a car driven by Dog people with a giant baby on top driving a woman to Hell will have you saying “what the Hell did I see”. While the “horrific” scenarios in how these people get killed off are silly the backstory behind them can be taken seriously. While it’s odd that mostly women use the website Hell Correspondence to contact Hell Girl for vengeance it does offer a good framing device to tackle to briefly touch on a variety of life’s conflicts.

Some of these life conflicts are decently explored, like in episode 10 a young schoolgirl is contemplating if her best friend whose currently neglecting her should be send to Hell. There’s also episode 19 where a young bride to be is being treated like doll against her wishes. Episode 19 does a good job making the viewer sympathize with its subject of suffering by not going overboard with its usual tricks. These episodes add to the anime ongoing discussion on vengeance to be viewed much more broadly. Unlike the first 9-ish episodes, the later half of the series begin to ponder the question if revenge is worth it regardless of the price.

Hell Girl doesn’t develop it’s recurring characters in charge of taking souls to Hell. Choosing instead to have it spotlight regularly on characters whom only make a single appearance in the series, and making their subject of vengeance easily hateable. Plaguing Hell Girl with an abundance of cartoonishly cruel people that negatively contrast with its mostly understated execution. Leading to both genuinely entertaining, and engaging moment to the equally unintentional hilarity of the tone quickly flipping the switch. It’s not until the final episodes that the title character herself finally receives some characterization. At that point it’s too late for anything substantially meaningful to be done with Ai Enma, but at the same time that’s what the other seasons are for. I’m hoping so at least because I have not seen them yet.

In terms of variety there are the nice break up of characters who get send to Hell by including some characters that attempt to make this sort of judgement seem grayish, but don’t happen frequently enough to even make up 1/4th of the total episodes in a 26 episode anime. The times the subject of vengeance who aren’t cartoonishly evil are refreshing, and allows the characters to talk about revenge, and Hell in a slightly broader sense. Some interesting questions, like in one episode it’s briefly discussed if Hell itself can be a paradise, are only brought up, and aren’t delved into beyond the surface level. If these sort of questions were given more exploration than overlooking some of its faulty character writing would have been easier to do. Also, the few actiony moments, like Hell Girl & the Three Straws battling what’s essentially a Ghost, or  seeing Hell Girl getting tossed around like a doll by Hellboy (not to be confused with the Mike Mignola creation) are a odd edition to the anime. Hell Girl, for the most part, underplays some of its more fantastical elements so when it goes for something without restraint it goes against the general intent of the anime direction.

For my first time watching the anime series I went for the English dub. I typically don’t consider the thought of viewing an anime when seeing it for the first time. Like with everything, it simply depends on my mood at the time. Sometime I’m want to watch an anime with the English dub, and sometime I don’t. With Hell Girl season 1, I saw the entire series with the English dub. Performances wise, there isn’t any actor among the voice cast that I felt stood out in any significant way.

If I had to choose one who stood out it would be John Burgmeier who voices Hajime Shibata in the English dub offers the best acting among his peers. This is wholly contributed to the fact his character receives the most characterization, and displays various emotions during his journey to stop Hell Girl from taking more people to Hell. Allowing Burgmeier to make Hajime ideals come across genuine when delivery speeches about how revenge is wrong on multiple occasions. From the onset, Burgmeier just clicks with his character perfectly. Hajime ideals are challenged, and explored as the anime goes on. Once Hajime comes into the anime, it carries with it a new repetitive nature, but also the dramatic, and thematic core that makes it work. He talks about the futility of vengeance to those who seek it in various conflicting viewpoints, and also witnesses the consequences of both routes.

Simply put, I liked Hell Girl season 1, even if it was formulaic/repetitive for more than half of its run. What kept me coming back to Hell Girl besides the allure of the title character herself were sometimes the story it told. I found it amusing to come back to the series whenever I did just to witness what kind of cheap trick it would pull to elicit an emotion from the viewer. The series biggest drawback is regularly having cartoonish writing, and imagery when attempting to create a serious anime. Hell Girl is an anime that demands you to take it seriously despite the silly visuals at times. Thankfully, the silly imagery isn’t a mainstay. Unfortunately, the cartoonish writing is a mainstay becoming a detriment for its entire run. Giving Hell Girl a B-movie type of horror movie quality to it. I was entertained through the entire run, and sometime engaged whenever it didn’t show Hell Girl take someone to Hell. It was a messy anime to get through, but I came out more positively on it even though it negatives strongly stick out.

Rating wise, I would give Hell Girl season one a 7 out of 10.

Some Thoughts On: Bungo Stray Dogs (2016) Series Season 1

On March 14, 2018 I finished the first season of an anime series called Bungo Stray Dogs by studio Bones, and oh boy did it feel like a waste of time. Trying to explain what Bungo Stray Dogs season one is about is futile. At first, I thought it would about its main character, Atsushi, learning to control his abilities as a were-tiger, getting accustomed to his new job in the Armed Detective Company, getting to get well acquainted with new people within his new job, and grow along the way. It tried to be about those things, but fail because it was so scattershot (much like these type of blogs I write) it prolonged whatever point it was trying to get too.

Unlike the animes I’ve yet to post about, Bungo Stray Dogs clearly wants to tell some kind of overarching story from the getgo, and doesn’t know how to. For starter, it would helped the anime if it actually bothered to focus on a theme, or something that had long lasting continuity. It constantly throwing in jokes, which alongside creating an inconsistent tone consistently. Lends itself to destroying any sense of rising action. One example of this is the very last episode doesn’t feel like a climatic end to the season. Ending up being just another episode Bungo Stray Dogs starting off with whimper, and ending with one as well.

Aside the from the glaring writing issues it had, another problem for me was how it simply meanders a lot. Dialogue in Bungo Stray Dogs has a knack for saying a lot, yet nothing substantial comes out most of the time. Things that should have taken less than half of a episode are stretched out. Padding the episodes with jokes, more jokes, and even more jokes that are of the hit, or miss variety. A hit if you like slapstick, and jokes about suicides, and a miss since it doesn’t vary the type of jokes it tell. Can’t forget about the tangent the dialogue can go into random stuff. What kind of stuff I can’t tell you since I already forgot about it.

My biggest issue with the writing of Bungo Stray Dog is that the structure of the series is messy. It’s disorganized in what to do. Like mention earlier with the absent of rising action, episodes feel out of order in terms of importance. There are episodes where Atsushi go on one off adventures with some of his other teammates with little done to flesh them out after sharing the spotlight for a single episode. In a 12 episodes series it’s difficult to flesh multiple characters, but at the same time if the person/people telling the story choose to take on this task they better do a good job. Obviously, studio Bones did not.

Characters in Bungo Stray Dogs are onenote, and typically just silly. Eventually, the once quirky personalities become mundane to see interact. How many times can I witness a character name Osamu Dazai (yes, named after the author of No Longer Human) attempting to kill himself as a joke, or how many times can I find Doppo Kunikida (yes, also named after another famous Japanese author) stickler for the rules personality amusing before it gets bored. Answer is very quickly. When there’s no effort to expand on characters, or their dynamic with each other it makes whatever journey they take feel pointless.

Naming the characters after famous authors is pointless since the most it does with it is reference their work once. The characters also aren’t the authors themselves so you can call them whatever name you want, and it’ll fit just the same. Either the storyteller(s) intended to do something by naming the characters after famous authors, but didn’t how to, or it’s just pure laziness, and someone just typed in “Famous Japanese Authors” since the task of coming up with names for characters was too hard to do. I think the latter is more likely what happened. I did kinda like Yosano Akiko character who is a crazy doctor, but only superficially. Her design I did like a bit. As a character, there isn’t much to her besides she’s crazy with super healing abilities.

So, with little complement in terms of story, and characters the production side is more of the same. The animation is cheap at times having moments where character won’t have mouths while talking, or stay on a single frame for longer than needed. What action sequences the anime does have as lame. They end as quickly as they start, but like with Vampire Princess Miyu anime series, there’s no choreography in any of it. It just goes through the motion of things, and constantly having contrivances in them to put battles in favor of the heroes diminishes all excitement. The whole “Ha, I’ve pulled one over you” routine gets tiring.

Ever seen Durarara, and wanted a lamer version of that? If so, Bungo Stray Dogs does exactly that going for a similar style in terms of direction, and music choices. However, whereas in Durarara, where despite nothing cool ever happening, was still entertaining to watch. Here, the style of Bungo Stray Dogs is out of place. It wants to be a cool battle shounen like series, but just comes off lame. Same with the soundtrack can be best describe as a bad DJ at a club of sorts simply farting out bad remixes of songs.

Voice acting is good. I saw the first half of Bungo Stray Dogs sub, and then eventually changed to the English dub the second half because of how wasteful I felt it was being with my time. Both cast I feel do a good job bringing the wild personalities to life. The Japanese cast is more eccentric in their deliveries of the characters, but the English cast transition between tones is smoother. Despite the poor material, the voice cast is the one positive I can give it.

Bungo Stray Dogs as a series is watchable, but there’s nothing worthwhile in it. Heck, I thought was going to hate these sibling characters with a comedic incestual relationship (yes, that’s a thing), but they don’t appear often enough for me to hate them. So in even that department it doesn’t do enough to elicit any kind of emotion. Season 1 of Bungo Stray Dogs is simply something I watched, and disliked mostly because I felt like it meander too much on nothing. I’ll likely check out the second season of the anime, but given the first half is this bad, and scattershot in its writing I’m already in doubt it’ll improve.

If I were to rate Bungo Stray Dogs, I would a 3 out of 10. Seems fair to me.

Cinema-Maniac: Will of Iron (1990) Review

Will of Iron is a PSA disguised as a feature length film attempting to tell the audience that drugs are bad, and don’t do them. Sharing the spotlight between four characters it aims to show in the simplest of ways the horrors that drugs can bring to their lives directly, and indirectly. A serious subject matter that should be handle with care none of which will be found here. You have Jacky Cheung playing the complex character of Jacky. A drug addict whose trying to call it quits, but just seems incapable of quitting it cold turkey. Then you have Michael played by Michael Wong. Doing all he can to clumsily play a drug dealer whenever he’s on screen. The material he’s given doesn’t provide much leniency, or clarity how tough, sympathetic, scummy, or funny he should be in a scene. One scene will have Michael being scummy in supplying Jacky the drugs, while seconds will be the concerning best friend. It doesn’t help that Michael Wong himself does a poor job in the role; he’s fine whenever he’s not acting as a drug dealer, but since half of the film has him doing that he lacks the toughness the role demands.

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Producer: “What do you say now Jacky? Agree to star in the movie?”

Jacky (the character) is given some background being told that he has tried beating his drug habit, but there’s no usage of that in any sort of theme. From my limited experience, having a drug addict constantly coming back to doing drugs has worked itself into a theme in other movies about drugs. It’s a ongoing cycle that drug addicts have difficulty in breaking, and typically this would be used in either its narrative to reflect that cycle, or have the drug consumption sequences reflect its character enjoyment of it. Here, you get neither of those approach. Breaking the norm by just having it as a plot point, and just bringing it up whenever the plot is at a standstill. Like Jacky job for instance is to draw pictures; however, manga/comic panels (you anime fans will notice the Dragon Ball manga in the background) can be seen in his household multiple times throughout the movie will confuse matter. Simply saying Jacky is a comic artist would have clear things up. However, Jacky claims people buy his pictures whether this means making an entire issue of drawings, or just a singular piece is unclear. It’s not important to the story, but given Jacky addiction revolves around him using cocaine to get inspiration for his artwork just getting the basics right is required.

There’s also the character of Maggie played by Maggie Cheung. Considering how incompetently written the movie is I can’t fault it for naming some of its characters after their actors since it would have forgotten that too. She’s the one good person among the group of friends who managed to make a good life for herself. Going out of her way to help her friends resolve their issues no matter how dangerous it gets. We’re talking about involving drug dealers who regularly appear in the movie violently reminding Jacky he owes them money. Now, Maggie character when not interacting with the drug dealers is a sensible character. This flawless character ain’t got much going for her, but her actions to help her friends never come off as far fetch, or out of the boundary of realism. When she does interact with the drug dealers, well, one-hundred thousand dollar debt increases to around half a million in one conversation, and have to earn that within a week all because Maggie had to open her mouth.

 

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Drug Dealer: “Get into the fridge! Revenge is a dish best serve cold!”

Finally, the character of Carol is played by Crystal Kwok. She suffers the most from bad writing being important in the beginning of the movie than turning into a plot point. Kwok character is so poorly written I laughed unironically at the characters discovery that Carol attempted to kill herself. Yep, you can tell by that how much I cared. The only character left to talk about is Sam played by Yiu-Wah Kwok. Sam is just simply evil, and money grubby. Everything he does is done without subtlety to paint the idea all drug dealers are this crazy, and ruthless. In a action movie sure I’ll accept such a character depending on the context, but in a PSA passing itself as a drama such a character is out of place.

The film doesn’t function a film first, and quickly fails because of it. Typically, you would think certain rules, or ideas about writing would be common among people who are paid to write stories for a living. In this film, it thinks it’s a good idea to have the lesson first, and then think about the movie aspect to them. So what you get are scenes, after scenes, and more scenes driving the same point home of drugs are bad. Given the territory, expect the usual giving into temptation, friends being torn apart by the person’s addiction, the addict falling back into their habits until they finally have the strength to overcome it on their own, and other such scenes.

The only scene in the movie that’s worth anything is a scene where Jacky has a nightmare consisting him making some silly expressions. It starts off with Jacky walking into a hallway, finding a small packet of cocaine, and than a bigger package, until eventually finding barrels full of cocaine in the hallway. Jacky gleefully envelopes his face into the cocaine overjoyed by the supply. Once the cocaine disappears, Jacky sees a the drug dealers in the hallway, and they go after him. After tripping, Jacky turns back to see it was all in his head, and then an avalanche of red plastic barrels fall into down a flight of stair, and into the hallway. This nightmare finally ends when Jack witnesses his girlfriend getting killed. This the only entertaining scene in the movie, and all for the wrong reasons.

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Now that’s the face of a drug addict.

Finally, the action climax which the film has one for some reason lacks urgency. To give you an idea of the setup, you have a character who swallowed drug pods, a pregnant woman, and two other friends avoiding getting killed by gangsters in a abandoned house. Despite the prospect one character can die unexpectedly of drug pods exploding inside of him, and a pregnant woman possibly having her baby killed still left me bored. As characters, the previous two acts did nothing much in creating compelling characters. Once it got the setup done in the opening credits that was about it for characterization. Everything that was to be heartfelt felt phoned in due the constant PSA of don’t do drugs prevented the story from flourishing naturally. A happy ending wouldn’t actually lessen the significant of the message, but this film thinks otherwise which is why it just ends. After the action climax is done, and the last person is killed the film just finally calls it quits. It ends without lingering the consequences, or ends bittersweetly with a message that not committing to quitting an addiction is just harmful.

Will of Iron is simply a tiresome PSA patronizing the viewer, and does even worse as a drama having no idea how to properly discuss its subject matter. Just about every aspect of the film doesn’t work in its favor from the clueless writing, bad acting, and hammering the same points over, and over again to the point the viewer might actually take up drugs just to feel like their time wasn’t completely wasted. It’s just a dreadful movie to sit through, and by the end of it I felt my life sucked out of me during my viewing experience. I was done with the movie before hitting the halfway mark, and maybe taking some cocaine, unlike watching this movie, will actually provide some level of engagement.

Rating: 1/10

Cinema-Maniac: Outlaw: Gangster VIP (1968) Crime Movie Review

Crime cinema is one of the most interesting genres for me, but typically also one I spend the least amount of time exploring in my area of interests. Quality films in the the crime genre are abundant so that’s not a issue for me. What is are usually the kind of stories that can be told in this genre, and how typically I don’t find myself caring much about these crime stories leading characters. I find the amount of memorable character, for me, even harder to find as after a single film I never seen them again. However, as I venture more in depth into foreign (outside of the US for me) cinema I learn there take on the subject I find a bit more interesting. Hence, my venture into the first of six (one of five films to come out in 1968) in the Outlaw: Gangster VIP franchise.

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Hey, did you know 2 out 3 Japanese men don’t know how to wear the sleeves in their clothing. Crazy right?

Outlaw: Gangster VIP follows Yakuza Goro Fujikawa (played by Tetsuya Watari) becomes disenchanted with his lifestyle after serving three years in prison, and seeing a changed Japan. Starting off strong, Outlaw: Gangster VIP shows a glimpse of Goro rough life as a child during the opening credit sequence, and the film never loosen its dramatic grip on you. Establishing early on in the film characters history, motivation, and displaying Goro contrast of his rough exterior compare to his inner kindness. At 90 minutes, Outlaw: Gangster VIP is very bold, and ambition in narrative storytelling is quite a successful accomplishment. Nearly everything in the film from a writing perspective works better than the film probably intend it too.

For example, throughout the film snippets of certain characters are given to the viewers at different points in the story. These snippets are later expanded on as the film progresses into discussing it themes on violence, loyalty, and moving forward through a slow pace. In particular, the character Takeo Tsujikawa (played by Mitsuo Hamada) embodies all these themes greatly. Serving somewhat as a surrogate of the new youth idolizing the life of the Yakuza while Goro Fujikawa is the wise old veteran trying to set him on the right path. Several scenes in the film illustrate why Goro wants to set Takeo on the right path, and as well facing the consequences that comes from his misguided view on the Yakuza lifestyle. It’s a classic dynamic you’ve seen in many films, and here it works all the same.

Continuing on, another aspect of the film that greatly serves it narrative are the characters, and the interactions they have with one another. A no brainer of course, but the dialogue, and the discussion among the characters in the film feel so natural. It doesn’t come across as if the film itself is dictating how these character talk. Rather, it’s the characters themselves moving the story forward, and their storied history. The way the character speak to each other, and how they react to an individual does as much to convey character traits as much as the spoken words.

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What’s with that look? I swear we didn’t have the dog for dinner last week.

If there’s any area Outlaw: Gangster VIP falters in is the romantic subplot involving Goro, and Yukiko Hashimoto (played by Cheiko Matsubara) is only half convincing. From Yukiko point of view her romantic feelings for Goro is sensible with what’s reveal about her in the film. However, from Goro perspective his romantic feelings for Yukiko don’t add up entirely. It simply comes off as a facade to get out of a uncomfortable situation. It’s a spoilerific scene that makes Goro yearn for Yukiko be questionable. Aside from that small drawback, the film plays out without a hitch. The seemingly large cast of characters never become too much to keep track off. It balances the small human aspects of it story without it losing itself with this Yakuza gang war that develops in the background. In spite of its many theme, and relatively short length at 90 minutes there’s always something important in occuring in the film. Finally, thematic exploration especially since by the end of the film you end up with a film that’s a lot thoughtful than the name would imply into a nice package.

Tetsuya Watari plays Goro Fujikawa (a character based on a real ex-gangster) in the first of many ventures. Watari excels in this portrayal of the Goro in both the physical, and emotional aspect required of him. His exterior, much like the character, is rough, and his line delivery shows no hint of a gentle soul. However, his eyes tell a different story whenever the camera focuses on him. Goro is a layered, and therefore Watari switching between contrasting personality for the same character feels natural. You will believe that Tetsuya Watari can defend himself against a  against an entire gang of knife wielding Yakuza by himself relatively well because of his commanding on screen presence. Simply put, Watari creates an quite an iconic character for the crime genre, even if the series as a whole is relatively unknown as of this writing.

Another noteworthy performance is by Mitsuo Hamada who plays Takeo Tsujikawa. He’s given more ranging material compare to Watari, but given a less layered character to portray. However, is able to hold his own much like Tetsuya Watari. Tsujikawa portrayal is more expressive of his overall turmoil, and happiness that his character faces. Relying less on body language, but doesn’t take away anything from his scenes. Whenever Tetsuya Watari ain’t the main focus Mitsuo Hamada is a fantastic choice to share the spotlight with. His scenes often relies on his comedic timing, and dramatic chop to make scenes. It’s a delicate balance that if done incorrectly a scene would have easily appeared too comedic, or too dramatic. Understanding this delicate balance, Hamda knows exactly how to deliver his lines in every scene. Plus, the times he shares the screen with Watari makes for some splendid bit of acting, as well as make for some of the best moments in the film in terms of writing.

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Trust me, no stills from the film’s action sequences can do them rightful justice.

In terms of supporting cast members, besides Mitsuo Hamada, there’s Kyosuke Machida whom in spite in being in the film as much as Hamada, but he gets to shine in some heavily dramatic scenes. Tatsuya Fuji also gets a small part as Suzuki, but unfortunately his role is also brief ending before making much of an impression. Same thing for Yoshiro Aoki, although he’s more of the lacking variety sort since he’s villain of the film, and has to appear more scummy regardless of the scene he’s in. Yet, in spite of the small roles the supporting cast receives they all turn in good performances with what little they’re given. Finally, there’s Chieko Matsubara, and Kayo Matsuo whom are the only ladies of any noteworthy roles. They play the supportive ladies which tended to be common in films in general during the 60s, and earlier. Both actress do fine in the role, but only in her final scene does Chieko Matsubara get to deliver a good scene. However, her co-star Kayo Matsuo despite appearing less leaves a bigger impression. Helps with the fact her scenes in the film tend to be other topics instead of constantly delivering dialogue on how much she wants to stick with her man.

Finally, this review (and any other on this film for that matter) would do a huge injustice if not mentioning action coordinator Kakuo Watai, and cinematographer Kurataro Takamura. Firstly, Kurataro Takamura eye for visuals gives the film plenty of classic wide shots, and long takes to absorb late 1960 Japan. Making the film look very beautiful throughout many points in the film. I would even say thanks to the visual choices made it visuals have gotten better with time. There’s also the action sequence by Kakuo Watai which surprisingly are impressive considering the year it was made in. Granted, like with action sequences during this era of filmmaking there’s the usual suspects of spotting actors standing waiting for their cue to perform in the sequence. All the film’s set pieces have these issues made easier to spot thanks to the long takes, and white shots, but they don’t diminished the elaborate (for the time at least) set pieces. Being an obvious highlight of the movie, even if they’re more over the top in comparison to the rest of the film. The execution of them, and staging of these action sequences ensures it warrant a viewing from any viewer. Lastly, the score by Harumi Ibe is pretty good. Fitting tonally whenever it’s used, and sometimes adding more impact to a scene.

Outlaw: Gangster VIP is a slow drama thick with great storytelling, and a fantastic cast of characters. Director Toshio Masuda crafted a film that age extremely well visually, and narratively. Many of the themes in the film are given careful thought in how they’re explored while also never forgetting about its characters. Balancing the large scope gang war with the human element thrown in you have a film huge in its scope that succeeds in what it sets out to do. That’s also including the technical achievement of the film which at times, along with everything else working in great cohesion with each other, will make you forget you’re watching a 50 plus year old film.

9/10

Cinema-Maniac: Brothers in Arms (2017) Crime Movie Review

As mentioned before, exploring the unexplored territory of film making, and any medium is a huge interest for me. Sometime you could be among the first to see great talent emerge from nowhere like I did when I first saw Gareth Evan’s Merantau (2009) before the release of The Raid: Redemption in 2011 which launched the writer/director into mainstream success. Here, it’s not the same discovering a hidden talent waiting to be recognized, but rather seeing if the filmmakers can hone their talent, and improve their crafts later on in their career.

Brothers in Arms follows four unemployed college graduates discontent with their lives turning to a life of crime. If the premise sounds interesting it’s made further unfortunate that it’s pedestrian in its understanding of crafting story, and characters. For starter, it starts with a flash forward of a bank heist in progress which only takes half an hour to get to that point. What happens before then offers very bluntly its characterization, and story. This could be forgiven, but as the film went on it became harder to forgive since it kept telling everything to the viewer leaving nothing to the imagination. There’s a scene a couple minutes before hitting the one hour mark where characters Michael (played by Nick Tag), and Ann (Katelyn Kenyon) in the most direct way possible talk about Michael flaws as a person. It’s this scene that encapsulate the amateur writing in a nutshell. From the beginning of the film Michael struggle to grow up, and as the film progresses there’s nothing else that fleshes out that conflict.

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Dude, you sure we can pass off as college graduates?

The best chance the film had in rising above it limitation is with the character of Michael. He’s a young man who had a opportunity to make a better life for himself, and didn’t take it. Witnessing him live with that regret is a focal point for about 20 minutes before deciding to rob banks. Now, with a discontent character who bluntly (like this passage) who casually have its characters spell everything else to the viewer one would expect being a stagnant in life for a motivation to go into robbing banks. Sadly, the actual motivation becomes one of out a sheer boredom for Michael after bank robbery is just casually suggested as a possible activity to relieve boredom. Thankfully, this motivation changes later on in the film, and evolves into something else entirely in a positive manner. Although, it becomes a taste of the good life sort of deal that only brought up on a surface level. If a bit longer, the film likely would have expanded more on how the accumulating wealth changed them more than what it actually shows.

Another thing about the film is it’s pretty standard as a heist film. However, the acknowledgement of these flaws within don’t make them any less inferiority. For example, in preparation for their first bank heist the four unemployed college graduates decide to watch a bunch of heist movie, and nothing else. They don’t bother practicing performing heist, practice to be better marksman, practice to be better getaway drivers, or anything. These four guys take notes during the stakeouts, having the lookout watch for cops, a loose canon, someone who keeps track of time, and the calculating leader. Those familiar with heist films will find common ground plastered all over the film. Including the illogically classic scene that won’t die regardless of what year it is where you have a character who gets shot, and taken to a veterinarian to get treatment.

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This is the most dramatic the movie get ever gets.

As someone who consumes media frequently on, and offline suspension of disbelief is assured to a product. Granted, it doesn’t excuse anything of poor quality. However, if something is engaging, or entertaining enough to make me forget about it shortcoming enough than any dumbfounding moment can be forgiven. This film has no many of them that could have been avoided, and half of them should be common sense. For example, if you’re planning to rob banks it’s best not to discuss the matter in a public bowling alley, or later on in the film talk about one last job in a restaurant. It’s also another thing to see people who never had training shooting with guns magically being better than trained police officers. The other characters sadly don’t get much scenes to themselves like you would rightfully expect in other heist films. It either focuses on Michael, or Detective Sinclair (played by John Welsh) attempting to solve the case. There groundwork is good here for a good story, and well defined characters, but the execution lacks the polish needed to pull it off.

When it comes to the acting it’s all around modest. Generally being okay, to acceptable, and the rare occasion of “are you even trying to act”. Nick Tag is the star the movie virtually hold a majority of the film on his shoulder. His character drives the story, Nick Tag is able to carry the film fine. Tag doesn’t delve too deeply into his character never having a single scene where he gets overly emotional, but shows restraint in scenes that he could have easily overacted in for dramatic tension. There’s Nick Tag costar Dexter Masland who plays John whom comes off as a college jock type of character. The portrayal is one sided, but is enthusiastic in playing the comedic relief at times despite the poor film humor. If given better material Masland could have gotten a laugh, or two out of me.

Zeph Foster plays Levi who suffers from a lack of range. Imagine Bill Paxton’s classic line “Game over, man. Game over!”from James Cameron’s Aliens taking physical form as a fictional character. Sure that sounds like cheesy fun, but Foster is unable to have any fun in his portrayal. He’s bland in his reaction, even in his more comedic moments he doesn’t come off as convincing. Granted, none of his other costars are technically convincing, but they are at least passable enough to not be distracting. There’s finally Cory (Not in the house) de Silva who plays Christian who is the most uptight among the characters. He has to displays the most resistant to his friends plans of committing heist. Being just the right amount of whining, and soft spoken to not come across as annoying. The only other noteworthy cast members are Katelyn Kenyon, and John Welsh who both can be best described as screen fodder. Kenyon is simply cornering while Welsh just has one facial expression for most of the film to get across he’s serious about catching these bank robbers.

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Yes, that’s what actually said in the moment.

On a technical level I can give praise to director Caleb J. Phillips who manage to make a professional looking film on a obviously small budget. Demonstrating a clear understanding of making the most out of very limited resources. Asides from the prop guns in on scene, nothing screams cheaply made when viewing it. It’s looks nice thanks to cinematographer Laura Jansen, the sets while ordinary have a lot in them, and understands what not show in certain sequences to hide its shortcoming. I can also appreciate Trevor Doukakis earnest attempt in crafting a good story. However, the one technical area that will make, and have made a majority of viewers quit the film is the awful sound balancing in beginning of the movie. Since it starts with a flash forward of a bank heist the audio is loud, and obnoxious while playing the classical music “In the Hall of the Mountain King” by Kevin MacLeod. In fact, around half the music in the film can be found on incompetech which has tons of royalty free music. So that’s aspect is pretty cheap, but the loud bombardment of noises is enough to make some viewer stop seeing it. I would encourage them it gets better, but there’s no pay off for putting up with a rough start.

Brothers in Arms (2017) is competent student filmmaking on a technical level, but everything else falls far below that. The writing feels genuine in crafting a good story, but is unaware how to do it being a constant misfire of comedy, drama, and basic common sense. The filmmakers here show they can possibly make a good movie, and care about what they’re doing in a cinematic language. Brother In Arms (2017) is not a film I enjoyed, or consider good in any long stretch, but there’s talent here, and witnessing it possibly turn into something good makes the experience worthwhile for me.

2/10

Cinema-Maniac: Extraordinary Mission (2017) Action Crime Movie Review

Extraordinary Mission follows undercover police officer Lin Kain (played by Xuan Huang) who attempts to take down a drug trafficking syndicate from the inside. The first half of Extraordinary Mission is standard undercover cop happenings; main character is in too deep in his current assignment, deal goes wrong escalating the undercover job, rising up the ranking earning the big boss trust, collusion in the police force, and other familiar territory. It’s these familiar traits while well executed thanks to pacing do make the viewer wonder for an hour if it’ll lead anywhere rewarding. Another drawback is the main character Lin Kain isn’t as compelling compare to the supporting characters. Lin Kain is simply the hero of the film with the position of an outsider put into a situation with characters whom all have a history with each other. Supporting characters are fleshed out, have clear motivations, and a rounded arc that is completed by the end of the film. These developments come in slowly, though do pay up in favor of the narrative. For example, the film’s main villain, Eagle (played by Yihong Duan), is surprisingly given more depth to him than initially introduced. Not only that, but his backstory makes him somewhat sympathetic in the story. Somewhat because you know he’s still in the drug selling business.

Lin Kain, as implied earlier, is the protagonist who has the least going for him out of the major characters. His backstory, and reason for becoming a cop is looked into, but not a whole lot to make him a fleshed out character. One flashback with just one tragic event doesn’t do enough to convey Lin Kain much as a character. He simply comes across as a nearly flawless hero with a strong sense of duty. An attempt to give him a flaw is made by making him addicted to drugs. However, it’s a plot thread is simply mentioned in passing in dialogue after a certain point. Seeing Lin attempting to overcome drug addiction is something that helps the viewer bridge a stronger connection with him, but it’s simply making something come across more significant than it actually is in practice.

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Still from a good scene introducing to the film’s villain in the movie.

Regardless how good the film turned out in the end both fans of crime films, and action cinema will find the flick overall polarizing in its narrative. An action junkie will find it to have too little action spread out through the film with a lead whose underdeveloped, and crime film fans would find it familiarity meandering to sit through. What the script writing does accomplish with ease is blending action cinema, and crime drama into a singular vision. The sillier aspect of the action side of Extraordinary Mission, like a seemingly unkillable villain who can take multiple gunshots does not contrast strongly against the crime drama vision. Expertly using crime drama familiarity to as an excuse to eventually provide good characterization, and using action cinema setups to provided the entertaining set pieces. In tangent of that, it operates on action cinema logic hence no mention of the passage of time in the film, and the resiliency of the heroes bodies despite what they endure during the climax. While also using the crime drama aspects of it writing to keep the story moving forward at a good pace. In spite of its major writing issues, Extraordinary Mission is clearly written by a person who knows how to work well in different genres, and know how to best combine them to their strength.

Xuan Huang takes on the leading role of Lin Kain delivering a very good performance despite some of his characters limitation. Huang excels in humanizing Lin Kain more than the script does playing off the cool, and collected side of Kain with ease. Another positive is Huang has a plenty of range as an actor so not only is he convincing while performing his action sequences, but is versatile in portraying Lin Kain more vulnerable side convincingly. Huang does such a good job as a leading man it makes it that much easier accept the same character you see struggling not to take drug is also the same character easily killing dozen of henchman in the climax.

The standout performance of the film is Yihong Duan as the film’s villain Eagle. Much like Xuan Huang, Duan delivers a good performance making a great flick duo on screen. He’s on par with Huang in the acting department; however, is able to crafts a carefully balanced character. Never going into the melodramatic Duan provides the sympathy his character demands. His mannerism differs greatly from the rest of his co-star typically speaking in a calmly, collected gesture regardless of context. Another appreciated aspect of Duan performance is never entering into the over the top. Much like Huang who would have been for to solely play a tough hero, Duan also doesn’t take it easy solely coming across as evil in his portrayal.

Only other noteworthy supporting actor is Jiadong Xing who plays Li Jianguo who does a good job who brings thing around in terms of creating a good actor trio. Jiadong holds his own fine with the two leads sharing convincing chemistry with them. While the silent Yueting Lang gets a thankless role. She remains silent for virtually the entire film, and her character ends up going nowhere. Lastly, the actor Ding Yongdai whom plays Zhang Haitao is the only other noteworthy character. His role is small, but well acted. Though, not enough to believe he can shot a gun flawlessly for being imprisoned as long as he has.

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The climax just make Xaun Huang look like a badass.

Action choreography is handled by Chung Chi Li whom over the top nature in action is kept in line thanks to director Alan Mak. The action in this film, for the most part, aims for realism while the physical feats of its performers have no limitations. Creativity is very high in the two action sequences in the beginning of the movie. Starting up with a single man drug bust before going into a car chase. There’s also a brief gunfight involving Xuan Huang meant to display his proficiency with a gun compare to the criminals. After this shootout, it pretty remain inactive on the action front until you get a flashback of a particular event in the story.

Finally, the film biggest selling point to casual viewers is the action climax which makes up around the last 25 minutes of the film. In this climatic actions sequence proficiency is made very clear between the heroes, and the villains. Despite their enemies larger numbers, our heroes use less bullets firing their weapons, and using cover constantly to avoid getting shot. The professionalism is obvious as the criminals are constantly moving around making up for their lack of skills for fire power. It’s a strange thing to compliment since many action movies do the same of proficient heroes vs sloppy evil henchman, but it’s rarely taken into account when it comes to choreography as much as it is here.

The climax is constantly moving from one area to another not just on foot, but eventually on vehicle which offer some cool moments. Either be it a cool shot of Xuan Huang on a motorcycle with a explosion behind him, Xuan Huang on top of a vehicle dodging bullets while taking out some henchman, or one cool looking car crash. It doesn’t try to constantly up the antics during climax, but slowly escalate into cooler, and cooler moments making the final impression the film have you be a positive one. Only drawback is notable usage of CGI, but they are rare in their usage in this sequence. Lastly, Alan Mak direction is fantastic in the movie blending two genre together for a visually coherent film through, and through. There’s only one jarring moment in the film that happens in the film which involves drawings coming to life into, but aside from that one moment Mak direction work fine.

Extraordinary Mission tackles very familiar territory for half of it run, but eventually is able to turn it around to make it a far more interesting character driven story, and displaying some exciting action in a very lengthy climax to end things on a high note. Genre fans of both crime, and action cinema will find individual aspects polarizing. However, anyone who likes both genre equally will witness a film that does a fine job of combining the two.

8/10