Wednesday, October 3, 2012

The Raid: Redemption (Indonesia 2011)

It's been a sleepy cinema landscape when it comes to hard-hitting, martial-arts action, especially now that Hong Kong films are sitting firmly in China's pocket and are trickling out at a snail's pace. However, and I'm admittedly a bit late to this party, The Raid: Redemption (Serbuan Maut), has assured me that not all hope is lost for this genre. Filmmakers take note; this is how you do it.

Rama (Iko Uwais), is a rookie police officer who is gearing up for what, unbeknownst to him, will be his most brutal day on the job. He says goodbye to his wife and unborn child, joining the rest of his team in the back of a SWAT van. The crew is geared up to take on an evil, no-good villianous type that goes by the name of Tama (Ray Sahetapy). Tama is basically a slumlord on a grandiose scale. He runs an apartment block, housing junkies, criminals and other unsavory types, but Rama and his fellow officers are showing up to put a stop to Tama and his evil deeds once and for all. At the helm of the team is Sergeant Jaka (Joe Taslim), a man that clearly has it together, complete with a zero nonsense policy, and Lieutenant Wahyu (Pierre Gruno), an old-school veteran on the force. We find early on that this is a very capable team and are certainly able to handle business, but Tama isn't alone in this ghetto. He's got a large army of tenants that aren't looking to be evicted, as well as two intimidating sidekicks, Mad Dog (Yayan Ruhian), and Andi (Donny Alamsyah). Clearly, this isn't the first time Tama has had the police try and shut down his operation. Our team gets the drop on the bad guys early on and stealthily make progress in the apartment complex. However, their advantage is short-lived when they're discovered by spotters that notify the big boss about their arrival. It seems like a never-ending stream of thugs charging at Rama and the others. The body count starts piling up on both sides and soon our team is left fragmented. When Sergeant Jaka starts questioning Lieutenant Wahyu about their mission, it's purpose and their lack of backup, things suddenly become more sinister. Do our boy's have what it takes to shut down this crime boss and the countless men opposing them?

Ah the action, martial-arts genre. Never known for it's ambitious story-telling or Oscar winning dialogue, but it doesn't require either of those things. The Raid: Redemption, like many films of it's ilk, has the simplest of stories, but it's just enough, and plausible enough, to get you to what you want to see without rolling your eyes; the action. There are a few twists and turns in the storyline, that I've kept out in true spoiler-free style, and they helped in giving the story a more thought-out feel. While not groundbreaking, it's clear that writer/director Gareth Evans, put some thought into it. When we learn more about Tama's sidekick Andi, things get a lot more interesting. Let's not kid ourselves here though, the action is what we want and by golly is it ever present here! The best part is that it's not just martial-arts action, there's a considerable amount of gun and knife-play going on and it's great. When the ammo starts to run short and our hero is left to just his fists and feet, he delivers some on-screen ass-whipping, the likes I haven't seen in years. Gareth Evans clearly appreciates the martial-arts, Pencak Silat; the style we see going on in The Raid, and it's filmed so that the viewer can really see and appreciate what's taking place. The shots are wide when two (or more) people are fighting and there's no bullshit cut-away shots that can sometimes take you out of the moment. Everything just looks good. It's so clear that a painstaking amount of choreography went into the fight scenes and I often found my jaw dropped at what I was seeing. There's also no fear in showing the viewer everything. Knives are slashing and stabbing into countless foes, guns are going off at point blank range and again, no cut-away. I admire that style in a film like this because hey, if you're going to be raw, gritty, edgy and in-my-face, then dammit, you better be. That being said, I suppose the proceedings are not for the squeamish. I can't say enough about Iko Uwais's skills. I honestly haven't seen anything that exciting in a very long time. He just makes everything look so flawless. I can't wait for the follow-up, Thugs (Berandal), in 2013. Same writer/director/actor, and I'm sure, same pant-shitting action.

A few people called me out on Twitter for mistaking The Raid: Redemption, as a Thai film after I posted a tweet proclaiming my excitement over this, "incredible Thai martial-arts movie". I was thankful for the correction, because I had no idea that Indonesia was putting out films like this; they weren't even a blip on my radar. Now, Indonesia is on the map (so to speak), and they can thank The Raid for that. (Lee)

Grade: A

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Mitsu no Aji (J-Drama 2011)

I hate myself. That has to be the only reason I sat through all 11 episodes of Mitsu no Aji (蜜の味). Okay, not the only reason, as I'm a big fan of Kanno Miho, but my God...sometimes being a fan can lead you down a dark road. Set your sails for incest (yes, you read that right)!

Naoko (Eikura Nana), is a young woman living in the rural town of Ushimado, eagerly awaiting her entrance exam results to Towa medical university. Her uncle, Masato (ARATA), a surgeon at the university, rushes to find out the results and ends up giving her the good news; she's in! Naoko is incredibly excited by the news, not only because she's been admitted to one of the top medical universities in Tokyo, but because she'll soon be by her beloved uncle's side; something she's been pining for. See, the two of them shared a moment in the rain back in Ushimado; a moment where their relationship changed, at least from Naoko's perspective. She stopped looking at him as just an uncle, but as a man that she's in love with. I know, weird right? Thank the heavens I'm not the only one that thinks this is weird, as Naoko knows that she can't tell anyone, especially Masato, about the way she really feels about her uncle. So she goes to Tokyo and begins her schooling, happy to be closer to Masato and seemingly content to adore him in secret. However, her dream to be by his side is soon disrupted as she's introduced to Aya (Kanno Miho), the woman (and fellow doctor at Towa university), that Masato has been dating for years. Naoko is crushed to know that Masato has a serious relationship and her uneasiness about it begins to show itself through her behavior. She becomes more distant with Masato and has an attitude whenever dealing with Aya. Naoko tries to seek comfort and distraction amongst her friends at the university; Norisugi (Mizobata Junpei), and Rai (Kimura Fumino), to name a few. Naoko's change in behavior does not go unnoticed by the ever-cunning Aya, with Aya soon taking steps of her own to ensure that Masato is her's and her's only. She pushes Masato towards marriage, even though she had rejected his proposal weeks earlier, and put's it on the fast track. Aya even invites Naoko and her friends to her home for dinner, all of this in an attempt to send Naoko a message that she better back off. Eventually, Masato begins to take notice of Aya's spiteful behavior towards his niece and the amount of time she focuses on work research, as opposed to him and their marriage, and he's had enough. He wants to call it quits with Aya and realizes that the only way for him to find some comfort in his life is to leave the country when an opportunity to study in Pittsburgh comes about. The news is sudden and heart-breaking for Naoko, but it's a necessary move for Masato and he leaves her with a memorable goodbye.

Aya refuses to file the divorce papers, thinking that Masato will be a different man when he comes back from studying abroad; even though he's given no indication as to when that will be. It's now 8 years later and Naoko is a doctor at Towa and in a relationship with her former classmate Norisugi. Her best friend Rai is dating another doctor, Yuji (Yamazaki Shigenori), who just so happens to be married. (This is a side-story that annoys more than anything else). Ah, good ol' fashioned adultery! Mind you, she's completely alright with this, but continues nudging him to divorce his wife. Everyone seems to have moved on from the mess of 8 years prior, but Masato has made his triumphant return to Japan in order to operate on head professor at Towa, Professor Takinohara (Masu Takeshi). Masato is a well-trained pro at this point and Takinohara needs him to keep the operation a secret because he's up for the position of medical director and he can't be perceived as weak or he'll never get the votes. Takinohara teams Masato up with Naoko and uncle and niece are once again together after all these years. All of those past feelings begin rushing through Naoko's head, even though she now shares a home with Norisugi and he wants to get married. Needless to say, things are getting complicated again. Masato still has no plans to get back together with Aya but they make a tentative plan to get along as professionals. No one knows about Takinohara's operation but Masato and Naoko, but that just lends itself to a perfect opportunity for Aya when it appears that things are looking a bit too familiar; 8 years ago familiar to be exact. Even if Masato wants nothing to do with her, there's no way Aya plans to let Naoko get so close to him again. Can everyone coexist without letting the past interfere after all this time? Will Masato and Naoko throw everything away to finally answer their true feelings for one another? And will Aya just relax and ease up from all the nasty back-stabbing and sneaky maneuvering?  

Mitsu no Aji is a Japanese drama that definitely has no shortage of drama. Before you get too excited after reading that, realize that it's not necessarily a good thing. This drama was so over-the-top in it's presentation, acting-wise, music-wise (oh that dramatic music whenever something "bad" was gonna happen, sigh), and even direction (flashbacks and effect-shots ahoy!) that I spent most of the time either laughing at what was happening or just angry. Angry at what was going on in the show but angry at myself mostly for sticking with this mess. The characters in this drama are incredibly unlikable and it's a fairly big cast to be annoyed with. I do mean all of the characters when I say this. I really had a hard time with Eikura Nana as Naoko; finding her extremely annoying, immature, and to be frank, just easy to dislike. That being said, anytime Aya had something nasty planned for her, or any of the other characters for that matter, I thought, "get on with it. these are the only interesting parts". Is it wrong that I only perked up in times when Aya's character had something nasty planned for the others? So be it. While we're on the topic of annoying character's, Rai, Naoko's best friend, was near unbearable for me. I think there were a few moments where I'd literally talk to my screen, wanting her to shut up. She's there to lend an ear to Naoko, but she spends the series sleeping with a married man, so she's better off keeping her mouth shut. Norisugi was actually a decent character until the end of the series when the powers that be suddenly decide to change his character completely. His behavioral change, while not unwarranted, seems to come out of nowhere. Last, but certainly not least, let us not forget that this story centers around a niece falling in love with her uncle. I'm talking blood relation here. To say it's taboo to engage in such a relationship would be putting it lightly, but hey, who am I to pass judgement. That being said, I just had an incredibly hard time rooting for incest to happen, thus making our protagonists unappealing. Hey, maybe you're cool with that and want to see what happens with such a story line, but trust me, Mitsu no Aji is a hard series to sit through and not just because of the subject matter.

I'm not going to soften my words here; I hated this drama. I didn't like any of the characters. The storyline, while at first intriguing, became uninteresting by the way it plays out, and the overall presentation made me laugh in an, "oh this is embarrassing", sort of way. Mitsu no Aji, or "A Taste of Honey", left me with a taste in my mouth, but it sure wasn't something as sweet as honey. (Lee)

Grade: F
Official "Mitsu no Aji" site (Japanese)

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

My Black Mini Dress (Korea 2011)

Seemingly obnoxious and shallow from the outside looking in, things aren't what they appear to be as My Black Mini Dress (마이 블랙 미니드레스), actually has a meaningful story to tell. Trust me, I'm probably as surprised to say that as you are to read it. 

Four close friends, Yoo-min (Yoon Eun-hye), Hye-ji (Park Han-byeol), Soo-jin (Cha Ye-ryeon), and Min-hee (Yoo In-na), have just graduated college and are ready to celebrate a new chapter in their lives. It's time to grow up, leave behind the partying lifestyle and find real jobs right? Well, maybe not for everyone and reluctantly so for others. These girls are used to living a very free lifestyle; going to the club every other night, partying and just having a good time. Time has passed since graduation and our girls are now 24 year old women. Yoo-min is trying her hand at being a broadcasting writer; Soo-jin is tutoring teenage students while secretly attending auditions because her dream is be an actress; Hye-ji is wealthy so she's content just partying and Min-hee, also from a family of wealth, chooses to take an English course, complete with her own puppy-love storyline, so that she can study abroad. It would appear that Hye-ji and Min-hee are the only ones content with their lives, while Yoo-min and Soo-jin are struggling to keep up an optimistic front when they're all together. Hye-ji introduces Yoo-min to the young and wealthy Seok-won (Lee Yong-woo), because she worries that her friend is struggling in love. At the club, just by chance, a guy spots Hye-ji and offers her the opportunity to star in a Levi's jeans commercial, an opportunity that will change the direction of her life. The other girls find out about it while buying tickets for a movie as it plays on a giant monitor overhead in the lobby. Naturally, they're all shocked to see their best friend starring on TV with a new-found entertainment career that seemed to come out of nowhere. However, not everyone is as happy as they appear to be, or possibly should be, and it's not long before the green-eyed monster starts to show itself. Soo-jin, and her secret struggle to become an actress, isn't shy about expressing her feelings of irritation about how Hye-ji, the girl with everything, is yet again given more. Meanwhile, Yoo-min is trying to have a relationship of sorts with Seok-won, and is dealing with an unbelievable boss (Jeon Soo-keyong), who constantly makes unrealistic demands. She does begin to find some comfort when an old schoolmate, Young-mi (Choi Yoon-young), comes into her life with friendly advice, as she too is working in the same field. When an incident involving Hye-ji brings the girls together again, Soo-jin and Hye-ji get in a huge argument in which their true feelings come to light. This is the tipping point that sends all four girls in different directions, forcing them to evaluate the friendship they've had all these years and if they all know each other as well as they had thought. Will Soo-jin and Hye-ji be able to let bygones be bygones in order to be friends again? And can Yoo-min figure out what love is while at the same time trying to find her place in a professional world where she struggles to fit in? 

I wasn't in a hurry to see My Little Black Dress because quite frankly I thought it was going to be a chick-flick, and in many ways it is. However, my crush on Yoon Eun-hye wouldn't allow me to avoid it and I'm glad I didn't. Things start off a little bumpy as our four main characters aren't introduced in a flattering light, and it takes a while to warm up to them and take notice of their individuality. Yoo-min is your straight-shooter, Hye-ji is the spoiled, live-life-with-no-consequences type, with Soo-jin being the serious one and Min-hee being your slightly air-headed comic relief. Yes, I realize these characters are all representing different character-types, but they do it well. Yoon Eun-hye, regardless of my feelings about her, really does a nice job at showing the difficulties in transitioning into adulthood and the responsibilities young people face. Hye-ji was a tough character to warm up to for me, but she's meant to be that way because she's spoiled and comes from a background that most of us can't relate to. I personally enjoyed Cha Re-yeon's performance and her character's actions because even though, as a viewer, you know she's just jealous of Hye-ji, it comes across as believable and you can even understand it. Many of us have been in similar positions. As for Min-hee, well...she's just cute and her moments were amusing. There's a story told here about friendship and trying to define just what exactly a friend is. The girls begin to realize they they may not know each other at all when their own lives start falling apart and they look for a shoulder to lean on. I found the story-telling to be a smart, true-to-life tale serving as food-for-thought in many ways, regardless of the movie being geared toward a female audience. I know I've had times where I felt I couldn't tell even my closest friend things and wondered why that was. There's a dark twist in the third act, a plot device that tends to anger me in most films, but here it seems to work. I will also say the ending had a bad case of, "this isn't over yet?", syndrome, in which you thought the scene you were watching was the last, only for there to be another scene and yet another. Silly filmmakers, you got me!

A story that rings true and strong performances that sell the story all the more are what help to put My Little Black Dress into recommended viewing territory. I love when a movie can make you feel introspective and that's how this one left me. Plus, that Yoon Eun-hye is just too darn cute. (Lee)

Grade: B

Sunday, August 5, 2012

Solanin (Japan 2010)

Not exactly what I'd call a feel-good movie, Solanin ( ソラニン), does however do a great job at making you think about your life and the direction you're taking it. Oscar Wilde once said, "life is too short to be taken so seriously", and we're reminded with this film that he just might be right.

Meiko (Aoi Miyazaki), and her boyfriend Taneda (Kengo Kora), live together in her apartment and their relationship seems to be in a really great spot. As a recent college graduate, Meiko is stuck in an office job that she doesn't like and her boyfriend is only working part-time as an animator. Also unhappy with his job, he enjoys playing music with his band Solanin, even if they mostly just get together to jam. Even though neither of them are really happy with their work situations, they're happy to have and support each other. However, when Meiko expresses her desire to quit her job and live off of her savings until she finds what she wants to do, their relationship is tested. Tanedo starts to feel a lot of stress about everything and it begins to take it's toll on them both. Meiko is also feeling stressed because she doesn't have the nerve to tell her mother that she quit her job. Taneda's bandmates, Billy (Kenta Kiritani), and Kenichi (Yoichi Kondo), are all in situations where they have to finally grow up, face reality, and get "real" jobs. Even though their relationship is in a slump, Meiko encourages Taneda to start taking his band seriously because they're good enough to make it and she knows he's unhappy at work. He agrees to it and him and his bandmates are soon on their way to putting out their first demo. They ship the CD around to different labels and just when they think they've snagged some interest, it turns out that the company simply wants the band to write original material for an idol singer they represent. Feeling discouraged and defeated, Taneda tells Meiko that he's stepping out for a bit and ends up disappearing for days with no correspondence to anyone, which of course leaves Meiko worried sick. It seems he simply wanted to figure things out in his head and needed to get away. Sure, it's a selfish way to do it, but sometimes you do what you have to do. He calls Meiko to inform her that he's sorted some stuff out and he's ready to come home, but little could she know, that phone call and the events that followed would change her life forever. Can Meiko find a path that truly makes her happy? And will Solanin ever get their big break?

In true spoiler-free fashion, I chose to end the proceeding paragraph where I did for a reason. The events surrounding that fateful phone call with Taneda change the direction of Solanin's story, as well as the emotional tone. That being said, the story of Solanin is a great one and one that's based off a manga of the same name by Inio Asano. It's a look at the lives of young people, the feeling of misdirection and confusion that many of us, no matter where we're from, feel and can relate to. It's a story of desire and dreams; wanting and wishing for more than you have and knowing that even though life can be a real pain sometimes, we can't let ourselves get pinned down by the negativity. Aoi Miyazaki and Kengo Kora are great at portraying a young couple in love, who are weighed down by the realities of life, yet deep down they strive for more out of it. I think we've all been there and some of us still are. As a viewer, we're really reminded of the importance of living life and seizing the day while we still can. The film has a nice, independent look to it, as opposed to a Hollywood-type gloss, which suits the overall feel and tone of the story. Some might say Solanin is a rock-themed film, but I'll just say the music in it is awesome, with Asian Kung-Fu Generation contributing the superb title-track. I have to say that the movie starts to feel long at times, at a little over two hours in length, but the third act tries to make up for it with an emotional display of friendship that I feel most viewers will find touching and satisfying.

It's longer than it needs to be and a bit heavy-handed at times, but Solanin still gets it's point across with a thought-provoking story and fine performances. You might want to bring the box of tissues with you on this one. (Lee)

Grade: B

Howling (Korea 2011)

Is it action, drama, suspense, or supernatural thriller? Howling (하울링) certainly feels like all of the aforementioned at times, which leads me to my point; this is a mixed bag on so many levels. You can't win 'em all Song Kang-ho.

Detective Sung-gil (Song Kang-ho), has been around the force for quite some time. There's not a lot he hasn't seen or dealt with and quite frankly he's ready to move up in the world and is looking for his big promotion to captain. However, his movement to the top appears to get sidelined when his boss sticks him with Eun-young (Lee Na-young), a driven female rookie detective who simply wants to do the job right. They're assigned to a case in which a man catches fire spontaneously while sitting in his truck in a parking garage. They find out that the fire stemmed from his belt-buckle, which was fitted with a timer and a chemical to ignite at a specific time. Pretty elaborate stuff. The coroner, upon examining the body, informs the detectives that he found deep bite marks, from what appears to be a dog, on the man's leg. We find out the victim was into gambling and drug-use which leads Sung-gil and Eun-young into following the drug trail. The drugs lead them to a low-life's home in which they discover a secret area where young girls are being pimped out. What had appeared at first to be a case of accidental death has lead these two to much darker places. Meanwhile, someone is attacked on the street by the dog and the police now know that the first victims bite marks are more than coincidental. Things seem to be moving forward in the investigation but Sung-gil decides to keep his and Eun-young's findings to himself and not report it to the Captain or the other officers, much to Eun-young's dismay. Sung-gil feels that if he can solve this case without assistance, then he'll surely be promoted. As you can imagine, this selfish style of police-work backfires on him and both Sung-gil and Eun-young are reprimanded, with their credibility taking a hit in the process. As if things weren't bad enough with her coworkers, Eun-young has to deal with being the only female in the group and these guy's stop at nothing in making her life as uncomfortable and inconvenient as possible. Sung-gil eventually starts warming up to his partner but does his best not to show it. We learn that Sung-gil isn't such a bad guy when we get a look at his family life. He doesn't exactly have it easy himself. So with this second victim, dead from an attack by what forensics are now saying could be a wolf, the team are trying to figure out where to find this animal and where it could possibly strike next. A connection begins to develop between the victims, as they all appear to have ties to child prostitution and drugs. The wolf is taking them out one by one! Sung-gil and Eun-young begin to question private dog trainers, as well as officers that work with dogs in order to find a suspect but their search comes back empty. Eun-young get's a bright idea in her search and comes back with the name Kang (Jo Young-jin); a name that changes their investigation completely. Who's using this wolf-dog as a murder weapon and why? What is their connection? Can Sung-pil and Eun-young find this animal before it kills again?  

A dog as a murder weapon. I personally can't say I've seen that before in a movie, but now that I have, I can say that there's probably a reason for that. It's all a bit silly. Howling gives us this fairly unique concept and delivers it in a muddled, overly melodramatic way. I have problems with the execution of how the story unfolds here because there are times where I wondered if the dog was some sort of supernatural being. That's how amazing this animal is or is at least presented. It seemingly comes out of nowhere and it seems to be able to do things even Lassie would be envious of (I'm thinking mostly of the movie's ending for that reference). To me, it all just rang a bit too fantastical and I never really felt a connection with the dog, as other characters in the movie clearly did. Now I love Song Kang-ho, he's my favorite Korean actor, and he's as sharp as ever here, even if his character isn't exactly the most likeable. Therein lies another problem for me with this film; I had a hard time liking any of the characters, aside from Eun-young. Lee Na-young does a great job at conveying the struggle her character goes through in being the sole female on the force, the adversity tied in with that and in general, just being a sympathetic character to root for. However, the police force, Sung-gil and Eun-young's coworkers if you will, are completely deplorable, detestable characters. I didn't care about any of them, one bit, other than to see them humiliated. In true Korean cinema fashion, these guys are made to look buffoonish, irresponsible and incapable, as well as immature and over-the-top sexist. The way they treat Eun-young was quite shocking for me, making me hate them and I found them to be almost villains for Eun-young's character. Yeah, that bad. As much as I liked Eun-young's character, I found some glaring inconsistencies with her behavior. Look no further than the scene where she goes to investigate Kang's home. This is a by-the-book, straight-shooter detective that breaks all of her own rules just by being at that house. It bothered me. The story-telling is quite intriguing in the first half of the movie, especially as you unravel clues with the detectives, but for me, the end result and the big reveal just didn't do anything for me. I felt it just lost that spark of intrigue from the first half and didn't have any impact.

Howling was a disappointment for me because it felt like a movie that didn't know what it wanted to be. The crimes within are horrible and incredibly dark, yet there are moments where the proceedings just seemed laughable. Check it out if you're a fan of the main stars (as I am), but it was a little too campy for my taste. (Lee)

Grade: C

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Ex (Hong Kong 2010)

Question: when a movie feels a lot longer than it's actual running time, does that mean you're not enjoying it? Yes, that's a rhetorical question because the answer is fairly obvious. For me, Ex (前度) was such a movie, one that emphasizes the old expression that you don't know what you've got until it's gone. I had a tough time with this one.

Zhou Yi (Gillian Chung), is a young woman with her hand in one too many cookie jars. She has a boyfriend, Woody (Lawrence Chou), that she's planning a trip with until she finds out, at the airport, that he shared some intimate moments with another woman. The two begin arguing in front of another couple, Ping (William Chan), and Cee (Michelle Wai), and through sheer coincidence, Ping just so happens to be Zhou Yi's ex. Let's not try and explore how that possibility is near absurd. This is a movie after all. Cee, trying to be the nice one in this group, sticks up for Zhou Yi and offers her a ride. Ping is in the backseat wondering how this all came to be while his ex and current girlfriend sit in the front talking about his bad habits. How's that for an awkward car ride? Zhou Yi reaches out to some friends and family for a place to crash, as she no longer has a place of her own, but she ends up having no place to go. Going even further out on that limb of generosity, Cee and Ping agree to let her stay at Ping's place for a few days until she can sort something out. Zhou Yi wastes no time making herself at home in Ping's flat and it's clear that Cee isn't as comfortable with her staying there as we may have thought. She can see the closeness that Ping and Zhou Yi once shared and is starting to feel that the two of them haven't fully moved on. During her time in Ping's flat, Zhou Yi and her ex talk about the good ol' times and the not-so-good of times they had together. Zhou Yi talks about the various guys she spent time with after Ping, including the aforementioned Woody, a triad bad-boy (Jacky Heung), and Sol (Derek Tsang), a nice guy cab driver that's actually friendly with Ping. Sure, she's a bit promiscuous, but I guess you sometimes have to see what else is on offer before you realize what you wanted was right in front of you all along. During this short time of being back together under the same roof, feelings for one another begin to rekindle but it's not just the two of them anymore. Are Ping and Zhou Yi really as good for each other as they think?

There are a lot of stories going on in Ex as Zhou Yi recounts her tales of past loves through the fun of flashbacks. I don't mind a movie using flashbacks to fill me in on various important little bits of information, but as a major story-telling piece where I'm constantly being taken back to specific moments in time, well that becomes a bit tiresome for me. Add to that the fact that every time we go back in time, Zhou Yi has a different hairstyle, a couple of which look like wigs, and Ping has a different hairstyle and style of glasses each time. I understand that it's the past due to me actually paying attention to the story, so I find the poorly done costume props distracting. I will say that the performances were quite good and Gillian Chung in particular proved that she's more than just a pop-star turned wannabe actress. I found her character to be really obnoxious at first but once you discover why she is the way she is, it makes sense. This girl has been through the emotionally wringer and Chung does a nice job at conveying that rollercoaster of emotion. The director, Heiward Mak, does a nice job making everything look good. He clearly has a sharp eye, but there are occasions where things get a little too artsy for their own good, leaving an air of pretentiousness hanging. Ex is reasonable in length at only an hour and thirty-six minutes, but I have to question the director's pacing, as the story seemed to drag on and on. A movie this short shouldn't feel this long.

A near mixed-bag with more bad than good, Ex is a movie that gets points for effort but isn't getting a free pass due to poor execution. There's a slick sheen on the proceedings and it's not a complete misfire, but as it all unfolds you're ultimately left unimpressed and even slightly bored. (Lee)

Grade: C

Monday, July 23, 2012

Miporin no Ekubo (Japan 2010)

Oh boy, movies likes Miporin no Ekubo (みぽりんのえくぼ ) are a bit difficult to review, so I guess I'll use a strange analogy to try and describe it. When you see the rundown of a movie like this, it's a bit like a can of Coke; you know exactly what you're getting. That Coke is gonna taste like a Coke every time and these types of movie are always going to unapologetically go straight for your heartsrings. Based on a true story...oh boy indeed.

Miho aka Miporin (Manatsu Kimura), is a 13 year old who is going to die. Boom! Right off the bat we're told she's going to die by none other than Miporin herself. This young girl hasn't had the easiest life. When she was two years old she was diagnosed with leukemia but she fought her way through it like the little trooper she is. She's just starting junior high, things are looking good and we can see that her mother (Ryoko Hirosue), father (Tomoya Nagase), and older sister Minami (Mayuko Fukuda), make up a tight-knit, loving family. On Miporin's first day of junior high school, she's in the midst of new-class orientation when suddenly her vision gets blurred and a sharp pain runs through her head, causing her to pass out. She's taken to the hospital to be examined and the doctor's conclude that Miporin had simply succumb to the pressures of starting school. Whew, close call right? Well Miporin is back to school the next day, in the gym with her friends shooting some hoops, when suddenly the same thing happens; blurred vision, sharp head pain and out she goes. Something is definitely not right here. Her parents rush to the hospital to be by her side and the doctor's decide to do some more extensive testing. After an MRI scan, the doctors sadly inform Mom and Dad that Miporin has a brain tumor. The parents agree to let the doctors go forward with a treatment, which isn't a guaranteed cure, but they're desperate.

Since she's stuck in the hospital, Dad picks up some art-letters at the local hobby shop to try and help lift Miporin's spirits. These art-letters are basically letter sized cards that you can paint on to tell a story or simply to create a picture. Mom and Dad figured it would be a nice, creative way for Miporin to express herself during her stay in the hospital. Miporin really takes to the idea and soon finds herself drawing a new picture everyday. The doctors and other patients are really impressed with her pictures and love gathering around to see what she'll draw next. After the initial treatments are finished, the doctors have more bad news for the family and inform the parents that the tumor has come back and that their initial treatment had failed. All this attention that Miporin's getting has also taken it's toll on her older sister, who isn't aware of how serious young Miho's disease is. Minami begins feeling jealous and starts acting nasty to everyone. She's a teenager. What do you expect? Yes, I'm generalizing. A couple of surgeries later, the doctors tell the parents that they've done all they can for Miporin and that she doesn't have much time left before she passes. That being said, the family feels it's best, and the doctors agree, to let Miporin spend the small amount of time she hast left, at home with her family. At this point, Mom has no choice but to tell Minami how serious Miporin's condition is. The time you knew was coming eventually comes and Miporin passes on, leaving behind 359 artistic letters documenting her journey in the hospital and through her illness. Her family knows how important the pictures were to them, to Miporin and to others that saw them, so they make a decision to ensure that people can continue to see them.

Okay, so that's probably the first time I've told almost every bit of a movie in a review before, but I promise I kept it spoiler-free. So before you yell at me, remember that the main character tells you right away that she's going to die when she narrates! Now, Miporin no Ekubo (Miporin's Dimples), was a made-for-TV movie, or as they say here in Japan, a "television special", which has it's heart in the right place; telling a story of a terminally ill young girl who touches the lives of others through her letters. Even though it's based on a true-story, the melodrama in this film just oozes out of every second of it's one hour and forty-one minute running time. Now I don't know about you, but for me, that can get real old, real fast. The acting wasn't particularly impressive, aside from Ryoko Hirosue as Miporin's mother because, let's face it, she's a pro at this point. The story, again while based on real events, felt as by-the-numbers as you can get. Girl is happy. Girl gets sick. Girls get treated and we're given a ray of hope. Hope gets dashed. Girl dies. You've seen that before and probably many times. When Miporin finally does see the light at the end of the film, her final scene is really over-the-top and young Manatsu Kimura puts on a "dying" voice that is cringe worthy.

Don't get me wrong, I didn't have an abundant supply of "Haterade" before watching Miporin no Ekubo. I like the fact that the real Miporin's letters touched peoples hearts and affected their lives for the better, but I guess her story didn't translate well to the screen for me. Sometimes movies can be just too cliche for their own good. (Lee)

Grade: D

(I don't have a trailer, so enjoy the first 15 minutes!)

Saturday, July 21, 2012

Usagi Drop (Anime 2011)

Like most anime, at least that I'm aware of, Usagi Drop (うさぎドロップ) is an adaptation of the manga of the same name, which got it's start in print back in 2005. I've never read the manga, but this is an incredibly cute and charming anime series that showcases the importance of love and bonding in the family unit.

Daikichi Kawachi (Hiroshi Tsuchida), is a single, thirty-something, blue-collar worker who lives a relatively mundane life. On one of these relatively mundane days, he receives a phone call informing him that his grandfather has passed away. It's been awhile since Daikichi made his way back home, but few things can bring family back together like the passing of a loved one. At his family's home, he makes small talk with the members of his family but takes notice of a peculiar little girl that he hasn't seen before. She follows him around the house, staying hidden; clearly shy towards people. Eventually Daikichi strikes up a conversation with her and she tells him her name is Rin (Ayu Matsura), and that her father is Daikichi's grandfather. Say what!? It turns out that Daikichi's grandfather had an illegitimate child with his housekeeper, a young lady by the name of Masako (Maya Sakamoto). As you can imagine, this news has the Kawachi family in a bit of a tailspin and no one seems to know what to do with Rin. There's talk of sending her to a foster home but Daikichi, clearly being of a higher moral standing, feels that Rin is a part of the family and can't be discarded so easily. After a bit of thought, Daikichi informs the family that he'll be taking Rin home with him and will take care of her until he can figure out matters with Rin's mother. The family is in a bit of shock but Daikichi is determined to look after Rin and Rin is happy to go with someone that seems to genuinely care for her well-being. Daikichi's life as a lonely, single man has suddenly changed drastically, as has life for young Rin. Can Daikichi handle his life being completely turned upside down by the daily stresses of being a single father?

Throughout the series, Daikichi and Rin find themselves facing a number of challenges. First of all, they have to get used to just being around each other. Daikichi has to figure out how to enroll Rin in school, arranging his work schedule with her school schedule, buying her clothes and other supplies, dealing with Rin's birth mother, Rin getting sick, Rin making friends with a rowdy little boy named Koki, helping her cope with the concept of death (she tries to understand what happened to her father), and all the other challenges one would face when suddenly having a child thrust upon them without any prior preparation. I can't even imagine! I always enjoy these slice-of-life anime and Usagi Drop does a great job showing the difficult transitions that Daikichi and Rin face with what is essentially their new day-to-day lives. Daikichi is a guy who had a very ordinary life before his grandfather's death but he makes incredible sacrifices in order to accommodate this young girl that he really doesn't know. He's not always convinced he's done the right thing and even questions his ability to watch over Rin. However, he does know that she's family and deserves to be treated as such. Therein lies the really special, heartfelt message of Usagi Drop. Add to that the fact that it's all presented with a wonderfully eye-pleasing art style that is simple and clean, yet still shows attention to detail. Each episode begins with the art done in a painted, watercolor style then transitioning into a traditional, penciled art-style and this series just furthers showing it's character. You can imagine that from the show's content that there is a lot of heart in the storyline and Usagi Drop has no shortage of touching moments. I feel that Rin is an adorable character that you just find yourself rooting for and together with Daikichi, their relationship is really cute to watch. 

If you're a fan of "realistic" anime that focuses more on the human element and our relationships with one another, than Usagi Drop is a sweet series that you're sure to find heartwarming. It feels like an incredibly short 11 episodes and whenever a series feels like it's over too soon, that's always a good indicator of how enjoyable it is. (Lee)

Grade: A 

K-On! (Japan 2011)

The much-beloved manga-turned-anime, K-On! (けいおん!), finally gets the big-screen adaptation fans have been clamoring for. We all know that series' do not always translate well when turned into a feature-length film, however, as a rabid K-On! fan myself, I'm pleased to say this animated movie does not disappoint.

For those that don't know, K-On! is about a group of high school girls that join the music club at school and form a band. They call themselves Houkago Tea Time, or HTT for short. The series focuses mainly on their friendships and the moments they share in school and in the music club. The movie finds the girls, Yui (Aki Toyosaki), Mio (Yoko Hikasa), Ritsu (Satomi Sato), Tsumugi (Minako Kotobuki), on the cusp of graduating high school, and while they have big plans to attend university together, they worry about leaving their underclass bandmate, Azusa aka Azu-nyan (Ayana Taketatsu), behind. They're also planning a big graduation trip, because that's just what you do apparently, and after some assistance from the club pet turtle Ton, they pack up and head to London! Yui, Mio, Ritsu and Mugi decide that there's no better way to say thank you and to show their appreciation for Azusa than by writing a song just for her. They plan to write the song while on their trip, looking for a little London inspiration. Azusa begins to grow suspicious as the others do their best to keep their song-writing plans a secret. As you can imagine, while in England, the girls find themselves in a few wacky, unexpected situations while taking in the sights, but that's all a part of the adventure. When an opportunity to perform for the people of London on the gang's last day of vacation presents itself, time suddenly becomes a major issue when you have a plane to catch! Can the girl's put on a memorable show and still make it to the airport in time to catch their flight? And will Azusa catch on to what the others are up to and ruin the surprise?

Having K-On! made into a full-blown movie, not straight-to-dvd, was an exciting announcement. I'm a big fan of the series and I'll admit that it's even become a mini-obsession of mine. I just find the characters to be incredibly endearing and I think the art style is great. I also really like the attention to detail given to the instruments the girls play, which adds a nice level of realism to the music of the show. As a side note, for those who don't know by now, Ritsu, the drummer, is my favorite. I previously mentioned that a TV series, regardless of being animated or not, rarely translates into a successful big-screen movie, but K-On! fans, fear not, this is a movie that will not disappoint. It picks up right where the second series left off, the art is more detailed and the animation has clearly been given an extra layer of polish. It appears that all involved with the film took the extra time (thanks to a nice budget I'm sure) to add a bit more TLC to everything. All of the characters, memorable characters that is, from the series are in the film, even if only for a few minutes (Yui's sister Ui, Jun, Nadako and, Sawako-sensei for example). Most importantly, the movie version of K-On! actually feels like they're doing something big with these characters. It's not just an hour and forty-five minutes of them sitting in their clubroom, talking and having sweets. Sure, there's some of that, because that's what these girls do, but they pack their bags and head out on a big adventure. It's really a lot of fun to see them in a foreign environment (literally and figuratively speaking), because it's something you haven't seen in the series. Also, there are some original songs written for the movie and if you enjoy the music the K-On! girls put out, then these songs will be right up your alley. You'll be sure to hear some of their "classics" in the film as well. Is a near two-hour animated film too long? Perhaps for some, most likely those who didn't read the manga or watch the anime, but for a fan, it's a great running-time and you almost don't want it to end. The only downside for the movie that I could think of is that it's not really accessible for those unfamiliar with the series. Sure you can still watch it, but will you care as much about the characters? The series spent 41 episodes and countless smaller specials, developing the relationship between these characters and getting you, the viewer, invested in it.

All-in-all, I found K-On! the movie to be a great success and I'm the not the only one. It had a huge opening here in Japan, beating out Steven Spielberg's Tin-Tin at the box office when it was released and where I'm from, that's saying something. The people have spoken. Who knows what the future holds for this series, but I can only hope that there's more K-On! somewhere down the line. It would be a shame to say goodbye to these characters, but if I'm forced to, the movie was a satisfying way to do it. (Lee)

Grade: A

Monday, July 16, 2012

Blind (Korea 2011)

I'm going to try and stay as unbiased as possible in reviewing Blind (블라인드), because yes, it has my favorite Korean actress Kim Ha-neul in it. Not factoring that in though, what we have here is a pretty good suspense-thriller that asks the audience to suspend some disbelief in order to achieve maximum entertainment. I was able to do that and walked away fairly entertained. 

Police cadet Soo-ah (Kim Ha-neul) is an angry woman when we first meet her. Why? Because her younger brother Dong-hyeon (Park Bo-geom), is at the club again preparing to enter a B-Boy dance competition with his friends. See, he promised to stop this hip-hop dancing and yet here he is about to shake his groove thing again and Soo-ah ain't havin' it! She drags him out of the club, going so far as to handcuff him to the handle on the inside of her van so he doesn't try to run off. The two are arguing during the drive home, with Dong-hyeon reaching for the handcuff keys and Soo-ah trying to stop him. You get the picture...this is not what you should be doing while driving. Sure enough, they get in a pretty horrible accident, where the van is left teetering on the side of the freeway overpass and Soo-ah thrown from the van, laying bloody in the road. Dong-hyeon cries out for his sister's help, but she's unable to make her way to him, her vision horribly impaired. The van tips over the side and a truck crashes into it, ensuring Dong-hyeon's death. The two were family, but not by blood, as they were both raised in the same orphanage. Time passes and we see Soo-ah trying to adjust to her new life as a visually impaired person, with her seeing eye dog Seul-ki. The police station can't employ Soo-ah again, and they claim it has nothing to do with her eyesight, or lack thereof, but more of the fact that she used handcuffs on her brother, resulting in his death. Basically, life is pretty bad for her right now. We oversee/overhear on the news that there is a killer on the loose, taking young woman at night and doing unspeakable things to them. When Soo-ah is waiting for a taxi home one night, she gets in the cab and soon realizes that the driver's (Yang Yeong-jo), behavior is quite abnormal. He says he'll take Soo-ah home even though she doesn't have enough money for the deluxe cab fare. Nice, but a little sketchy. He's persistent on giving her a complimentary coffee and having her drink it. Weird and suspicious. The cab smells like sterilizer. Just weird. While trying to get Soo-ah to drink the coffee, he's not watching where he's going and hits a woman crossing the road. He tells Soo-ah he hit a dog, but when he gets out of the cab, he puts the woman's body in the trunk. Soo-ah is certain he didn't hit a dog and the driver becomes aware that she's onto him. He tries to attack her but Soo-ah is able to fight him off long enough, because another car starts to show up and the crazy dude drives off, leaving Soo-ah on the side of the road.

Soo-ah speaks to the police and tries to convince them that just because she's blind, it doesn't mean she can't give them valuable information. Inspector Cho (Jo Hee-bong), decides to give her the benefit of the doubt and hears her out. Also, a young man Gi-seob (Yoo Seung-ho), comes forward claiming that he saw the accident that night but the information he gives Inspector Cho conflicts with the information provided by Soo-ah. Meanwhile, this killer is still on the loose, taking young women, torturing and killing them. To make matters worse, he's aware that Gi-seob saw him that night and he also has Soo-ah's contact information from that fateful night in the taxi. Soo-ah and Gi-seob can't seem to get along, but they both need to work together because the killer is out there and knows how to find them. Can Inspector Cho help these two get along and put all the pieces together in order to catch this psychopath? 

How about that for a premise!? A visually impaired young woman, with some police training, has to work alongside a young punk and a somewhat bumbling inspector in order to catch a deranged killer. Blind gives us a far-fetched premise but presents it in a way that seems somewhat plausible. That's something I can always appreciate in a film. Even if I'm expected to not believe what's going on, try and make me believe it. I tend to appreciate the effort. Take your material seriously and I'll try to take it seriously. You get what I'm saying. You know I love Kim Ha-neul at this point, and for me, she doesn't disappoint here. She does quite a respectable job playing someone with a visual handicap. It never comes across as phony or laughable, so kudos to her for that. She's proven time and time again that she has great range and isn't just the comedic actress she started off as. Jo Hee-bong, I found out, wasn't always an actor and got his start as a stuntman. I have to say, he does quite well here as a goofy, but charming, detective that you root for. Yang Yeong-jo, as the nutty killer Myeong-jin, is excellent at playing an angry, demented lunatic. This guy is really intense and does at a great job at creating that intense air in a scene where you have no idea when or how he's going to snap. You see this dude, you know something's going down. Speaking of which, there are some really intense scenes in Blind, especially one involving the subway system and what felt like a great commercial for the use of Apple's iPhone. Soo-ah and Gi-seob use their iPhone's in this scene involving Myeong-jin and it's not only intense, but pretty darn cool too. That being said, I did have some gripes with Blind. My biggest problem was that while Myeong-jin was great at playing this incredibly driven killer, he was also damn-near unstoppable. I mean this guy was like the Terminator at times and it had me thinking on more than one occasion, "ummm, what the...? how is he not dead!? He is just human right?" I was also annoyed at how, yet again, the police force come across as incompetent nitwits. I find this more of a problem with Korean films as-of-late, more than as a problem with just this film.

Blind is a suspense-thriller that hits all the marks in most cases. The characters are likeable, the villain is detestable and there are some real nail-biting moments. Some ideas are far-fetched, but this is a movie for crying out loud. Suspend some disbelief, sit back and firmly grip the side of your chair. Now you're ready to watch! (Lee)

Grade: B


Sunday, July 1, 2012

From Up on Poppy Hill (Japan 2011)

Serving as Goro Miyazaki's second film as director, and my first review in almost a year, From Up on Poppy Hill (コクリコ坂から) is just about what you'd expect at this point from Studio Ghibli. Yeah, that's a good thing.

Umi Matsuzaki (Masami Nagasawa) is a 16 year old girl that probably works harder than most teenagers you and I know. Not only is she a student, but she helps to run a lodging house, taking on cooking and cleaning duties. Why? Because her mother, Ryoko (Jun Fubuki), is a researcher, currently in the United States. She stays at the house with a mix of different characters including her younger siblings Sora (Haruka Shiraishi), and Riku (Tsubasa Kobayashi), doctor-in-training Miki Hokuto (Yuriko Ishida), and her grandmother Hana (Keiko Takeshita), among others. At school, she and friends notice that a group of boys are protesting the demolition of their clubhouse. The school wants to tear it down because it's become incredibly rundown, a safety hazard and basically an eyesore. Taking the lead in protest is Shun (Junichi Kozada), the president of the school newspaper. He's a rather confident, well-spoken young man that Umi soon finds herself admiring. Typically too busy for anything but school and the lodging house, Umi now finds herself getting involved with different projects at the clubhouse just to help Shun and his friends. She wants to impress Shun and even gathers a ton of students to help clean the place up. The two begin developing a friendship and their feelings for one another grow stronger with each encounter. When Shun visits Umi's house for a dinner party, she tells him about her father and how his ship went down in the Korean war. She stills raises the flag for him every morning outside of the lodging house, even though he passed when she was just a child. When Umi shows Shun a picture of her father and his friends, Shun seems taken aback by the image. When he returns home from the dinner party, he looks at his photo album and realizes he has the exact same photograph in his collection. But why? Feeling uneasy and unsure about this revelation, he begins to give the cold shoulder to Umi, regardless of her manning the helm and continuing to help in restoring the clubhouse so that it can avoid being torn down. Why would Shun have the same photograph as Umi? And will the students be able to save the clubhouse from being demolished?

Goodness me, the trials and tribulations of Japanese youth in the 60's. From Up on Poppy Hill, unlike most other Studio Ghibli films, is a film that puts the focus strictly on the characters and their relationships without any fantasy element, thus giving it a great sense of realism. I'll tell you flat-out that I'm a sucker for all things Studio Ghibli. They can almost do no wrong in my eyes. I also didn't hate on Goro Miyazaki's directorial debut, Tales from Earthsea. That doesn't mean I'm biased though. I got this way because Studio Ghibli continues to put out excellent pieces of art with these films. From Up on Poppy Hill is no different in that it continues that fine tradition. I'm pleased that the running time for this movie is only around 90 minutes, because most of my criticisms in the past towards Ghibli films is that they tend to run a bit long. Umi's character is instantly likable, as is Shun, and the twists this movie throws at your are quite intriguing without being too long-winded or far-fetched. I was genuinely interested in what the connection between Umi and Shun was and it was fun to watch the students band together in order to save their clubhouse. The animation was pretty top-notch in my opinion, which is also the Ghibli standard, and the musical choices fit perfectly.

If you love Studio Ghibli films as much as I do, then you're going to enjoy From Up on Poppy Hill. For those who aren't sold on Ghibli works, then this probably isn't going to win anyone over. Harsher critics may feel this is run-of-the-mill stuff, but for those with a soft-spot for Miyazaki, it's guaranteed entertainment. (Lee)

Grade: B