Review: A Silent Voice

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Let’s get this off my chest. A Silent Voice was totally snubbed at the 2018 Oscars! Boss Baby and Ferdinand? Really? Coco was a phenomenal film and probably deserved the win, but still, fuck the Academy and their nominating process. A Silent Voice is not only a great animated film with heart and emotion, it is great film that addresses real world issues that transcend cultures. And for those that heap scorn on Japanese animation as a legitimate medium of art, I would gladly hold this movie up as an grand example of fine animated film that is not done by Studio Ghibli.

A Silent Voice is a personal story about regret, redemption, and above all friendship. Many of us probably regret some things we did in our youth. I know I do. And we seldom get to make up for it. Shoya was 12 years old when he took a path that deeply effected his life and many around him. Now, six years later, he seeks to turn that around.

While in elementary school. Shoya is a class clown, and wild, jumping off low bridges into rivers with his friends, raising hell as many kids do at that age. One day, a new girl transfers into his class named Shoko. She uses a notebook to communicate because she is deaf. Unfortunately, this opens her up to not just teasing but straight up bullying led by Shoya. Even though their teacher sees it going on, he intervenes with disinterest. Yet dispite all this, Skoko does not complain. In fact she tries to use sign language and her limited ability to speak to ask Shoya ” Can you and I be friends?” Shoya just thinks she’s a freak. It isn’t until Shoko’s mother suspects something because she keeps losing her hearing aids that the school becomes involved. Shoya is forced to transfer out. And because of this particular shame and the teacher especially pointing Shoya out, he himself is targeted for bullying by the other students that were formally his enablers.

Now, a senior in high school, we see that Shoya is getting his affairs all in order. He’s closed out his bank account, sold everything, quit his job, marked off days on his calendar, and left his money next to the bed of his sleeping mother with a thank you note. The last thing he was going to do was return Shoko’s notebook to her which he still had from when they were young. But upon finally catching up to her to return her notebook he blurts out the sign language that he had learned, “Can you and I be friends?” This was not something he had planned on saying. His return of the notebook was supposed to be his last act of squaring his debts before suicide. Yet it will set him and us on a journey about redemption, love, friendship, and forgiveness.

Shoya, in the years since Shoko had to transfer schools, was ostracized by classmates, and subsequently labeled a bully which would follow him around to the present day. He grows up with no friends and even has trouble looking people in the eye. He actually starts a friendship with Tomohiro, a fellow student and social outcast himself. Yet he will go on to be come a great friend to Shoya when he needs it. Tomohiro is a pure soul of a person who does render judgments on anyone and is very protective of Shoya.

One of the plot points of Shoya’s burgeoning friendship with Shoko is her wish to want to reconnect with other classmates from when they were in elementary school. Shoya is a little reluctant in trying to reconnect yet is willing to do so, though it works for the most part, except for one girl, Naoko, who still dislikes Shoko and blames her for breaking up the fun group of kids that they once were.

The results will bring back up old memories of not just those that participated in bullying but also comments on those who were either enablers, or those that were complacent. Falling in between and walking a thin line is Miyoko who also transferred after Shoko did because the bullying made her upset. Reconnecting with Shoko, it turns out that she also had been learning sign language over the years and has always felt bad for running away instead of supporting her.

There is an incredible depth to this film that transcends the anime medium and elevates it to genuine art. The production by Kyoto Animation is full of color and subtle lines of beauty based on real locations in Japan. The music is subdued and at times sparse with a solo often melancholy piano. Outside of the opening title sequence using The Who’s “My Generation,” there is one other song performed by Aiko called  “Koi wo Shita no wa” (恋をしたのは).

Director, Naoko Yamada’s previous work has mainly been in slice of life animes like Clannad and K-On, and it is that experience of character focused anime that and glimpses of everyday life that offer subtle yet significant insight into the personalities of the gathered ensemble.

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What stands out though, is the phenomenal voice work by both the Japanese cast and the English cast. I would like to think that the performers knew that not only did they have a really good story and script to work with, they also knew that they were participating in something that was special and significant.

If you listen to the English dub, the performance by Lexi Cowden (listed on IMDB as Lexi Marman) as Shoto is particular emotional, even wrenching, as Lexi is deaf herself. She has said in interviews she reached into her own past experience of being bullied while young to render her performance. And while we are all the better for it, we also feel her pain as she haltingly and desperately says, “I’m trying to do my best.”

Robbie Daymond as Shoya, may be best known as the re-dub actor of Tuxedo Mask for Sailor Moon and Mumen Rider for One Punch Man, portrays a reserved and damaged young man teetering between self loathing and depression.

Be warned, there are points in the movie that may be difficult for people to watch, especially the bullying that occurs in the early parts during the flashbacks to elementary school. But beyond that it is ultimately a beautiful complex film that tackles me heavy subjects. It is told using the medium of animation that allows for some great artistic expression, especially with the symbolic POV of Shoya who when he sees faces of others, he just sees X’s on their faces, until he begins to make a connection to them.

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A Silent Voice is adapted from a manga by Yoshitoki Oima. As complex and layered as the anime is, the manga is even more so delving more into the side characters and their relationships to each other and their background. Certainly Naoka’s and Miyoko’s relationship as high school classmates. Tomohiro’s side story of an aspiring young film-maker is especially well fleshed out. The film does a very good job at the adaptation but if you are looking for more, the manga is available in both print and digital versions.

It had actually been a long road for A Silent Voice to make it to us. It received several limited theatrical runs in the United States, but was held up for a long time in home release.  It did receive a UK Blu-ray release in 2017 which I had imported because I had a region free player. But it was not until 2019 that it received a release stateside. Presumably it was a rights issue over the usage of The Who’s “My Generation.” Nevertheless not only can this remarkable piece of art be appreciated on home media, it is also available across digital services and is currently available to stream on Netflix.

There are few films that can take on, let alone, balance the heavy themes as well as A Silent Voice. It is a genuinely emotional and handles its complex subject matter with nuance that I don’t think can be found a live action equivalent. I have no reservations about giving this film my Highest Recommendation.

Final Score 9/10

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Godzilla: King of the Monsters Roars to Life

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I am an unabashed Godzilla fan and have been for as long as I can remember. Throughout the decades there have been ups and downs in the quality of the Godzilla movies, but my love for the guy has never waned, whether he was a good guy or bad. There is something joyful, perhaps whimsical about giant monsters duking it out amidst a backdrop of a crumbling cityscape with no care for how much destruction is caused that speaks to the inner child in me playing with miniature toys. And before anybody thumbs their nose in blockbuster snobbery, consider the appeal of the Jurassic Park films and Superhero films that promise just as outrageous premises.

The first attempt at an American adaptation of the iconic monster was the dismally received 1998 version. It wasn’t until 2014 that another version would be made with more active participation from Godzilla rights owners Toho. It received more positive reviews and as far as I was concerned it was indeed a genuine Godzilla film with the exception that it centered too much on the human drama and not enough on Godzilla itself. But it was successful enough that a sequel would be on the way.

Since 2014’s Godzilla director, Gareth Edwards was unavailable due to working on Star Wars: Rogue One, horror director Michael Dougherty (Trick ‘r Treat, Krampus)was brought on board. Michael Dougherty was himself a huge fan of Godzilla. He was not only offered to the chance to direct a Godzilla sequel but to direct one that featured multiple monster from the Toho stable of monsters. These monsters would be Mothra, Rodan, and King Ghidorah. Needless to say, he jumped at the chance and we are all the better for it.

It’s not often a sequel tops its previous film but Godzilla King of the Monsters does that by embracing its kaiju movie roots and treats the audience to jaw dropping scenes of giant monsters wrecking havoc while fighting each other. Although much of the battles take place in murky or dark conditions, it is never so dark that you can not make anything out.

The plot is clunky to be kind. But if you were to compare it to any other plot of a Japanese Godzilla movie in the last fifty-plus years of Godzilla films it is serviceable. Five years have passed since Godzilla left San Francisco in ruins and since then he has not been seen. Monarch, the not so secret monster hunting organization, has been tracking and containing other kaiju, or titans as they are called. There is conflict with the government as to whether to destroy these creatures or keep them alive.

Emma Russel (Vera Farmiga) is a researcher for Monarch and has developed a device called an Orca (this is the McGuffin of the movie) that has the ability to tune into the frequency of the titans and potentially control them. She puts this device to good use at the hatching of Mothra , one of the titans under Monarch observation. Suddenly the base is attacked by eco-terrorists led by Alan Jonah (Charles Dance). Mothra is set loose, Emma and her daughter (Millie Bob Brown) are taken. Ostensibly, the idea is to release the other titans to bring balance back to the world since humans are responsible for more global devastation than the titans. I guess that involves killing billions? ¯\_(ツ)_/¯  It’s a bit of a Thanos solution, but whatever.

Kyle Chandler plays Emma’s ex-husband, Mark who was once also a Monarch member, becomes involved with Monarch again after his daughter and ex-wife not only are taken but so is the invention she created. His motivation is getting his daughter back. Seriously the family dynamic theme from the last film did not work great the last film and it doesn’t work now.

The saving graces of the weak plot and the script is the talent of the actors who all do well at selling material that is not so stellar. Reprising their roles from 2014’s Godzilla are Ken Watanabe as Dr. Serizawa and Sally Hawkins as Dr. Graham. Look also for Zhang Ziyi playing not only a mythologist that researches the legends that are the historical basis for the titans.

Make no mistake who the real star of the film is. Godzilla is the centerpiece to this saga and is without a doubt a force of nature as he and Ghidorah, the three headed titan have been eternal rivals since the beginning of time. Throw into this stew of monster mayhem supporting action by Mothra, Rodan, and several surprise originals, and you have a kaiju tag-team match of epic proportions, leveling cities across the globe. But this is a showcase for Godzilla, and in this he is not just a force of nature or balance as in the last movie, he must save the planet.

Every single one of these monster look amazing as each has their unique personalities and quirks. It’s not guy in a rubber suit, but it does use motion capture animation which really adds a sense of…uhm…realism to the fight scenes. The titans are rendered with incredible detail not only to their giant bodies, but also their facial expressions convey emotion beyond that of a a raging creatures. Ghidorah, which has three heads, each have their own personality (they don’t always get along either). And this Ghidorah is one huge motherfucker. Rodan is pure menace from the moment it emerges from a Mexican volcano, emitting lava from its body. Its aerial combat against a squadron of jets one for the ages. Mothra, who has always been a bit of a silly monster for me is absolutely majestic in this movie and is possibly one of the best representations of the moth-like kaiju ever.

There are elements of eye popping scale that include the monsters against cities buildings but also from the viewpoint of humans on the ground. It makes them truly imposing and massive. The sheer level of destruction is apocalyptic in its imagery and is almost biblical in its fearful imagery.

Another star of this film is one that does not appear on screen but makes its presence known with its own monstrous presence and that is the epic orchestral score by Bear McCreary (Battlestar Galactica, Outlander). I’ve long been a fan of McCreary’s work since Battlestar Galactica and he tackles the score with nods to the some of the famous Toho themes by Akira Ifukube while adding his unique ability to incorporate music from around the world such as taiko drums, Buddhist chants, and a chorus in Ancient Babylonian. The cherry on top of this is a cover of the classic Blue Oyster Cult song “Godzilla.”

In the end, Godzilla: King of the Monsters is a magnificent triumph of special effects monster action and battles. It manages to rise above a fairly dismal script filled with a few character with heavy plot armor (seriously Millie Bobby Brown’s character should have died several times over). But the real reason one sees a Godzilla movie is for the action, destruction, and monster versus monster action and this movie delivers on that promise. It lays enough seeds for the upcoming Godzilla vs. King Kong match-up next year.

The most positive thing I can say about the story is that it does a better job of diving into the lore and mythology of the titans. Much of this is handled by Zhang Ziyi who has a surprising connection/homage to the classic Toho era. It does provide perspective and if you are like me love world building, it’s very informative. They try to do some other science exposition but that just doesn’t hold up.

This is a movie that is clearly made by a Godzilla fan and for Godzilla fans. It is an absolute love letter to fans and I believe it elevates it to classic status. The film’s only shortcoming in in some of the plotting, but it is an absolute blast of a film. The action is above top-notch and is filled with stunning iconic moments. If you are already a fan of Godzilla films, this is the one to see on the biggest screen possible. Highest Recommendation

Final score: 9/10

PS. Why do soldiers continue to think shooting regular guns at giant monster do any good?

You Should be Watching Cinemax’s Warrior

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“I’m a Chinaman who’s never been to China. I was born in San Francisco, but I’m sure no fucking American. I don’t belong anywhere.”

Young Jun from Warrior

It is nearly impossible to describe how big an impact Bruce Lee had on the world of martial arts, martial arts movies, and action movies in general in a simple blog post. With just a handful of movies, most of which were really not that good and don’t hold up to the test of time, he solidified his iconic status as a martial arts superstar with name recognition that has lasted over 45 years past his death. But that stardom was hard to come by, especially in Hollywood. While getting moderate success in supporting roles, it would take him moving back to his childhood home of Hong Kong for him to have a leading role.

Hollywood in the late 60s and early 70s was not anywhere near as diverse an industry as today. And, frankly, it’s still not as diverse as it should be. But legend has it that Bruce Lee approached Warner Brothers with a pitch about a Chinese man coming to America during the late 1800s in the search for his sister. It would be a series that not only featured an Asian leading man, but would be a vehicle for him specifically and a showcase for martial arts. Warner Brothers and ABC declined, presumably with the excuse that Americans would not accept a Chinese leading man in a television show. ABC went on to produce Kung Fu, starring David Carradine.

Flash forward to 2019, and Cinemax, with the participation of his daughter, Shannon Lee, have finally brought us Bruce Lee’s original vision for a television series. Shannon Lee, Jonathan Tropper (Banshee) and Justin Lin (Fast & Furious 3-6, Star Trek Beyond) would join in producing the series Warrior that premiered this year on the premium cable channel. So let’s dive into a non-spoiler review of the first season of Warrior, and why you should be watching it.

When the first episode of Warrior opens, Ah Sahm (played by Andrew Koji) is literally fresh off the boat when he comes face to face with the bigotry of America, specifically San Francisco. He encounters a trio of abusive immigration officers, one of whom knocks a bowl of rice out of the hands of another immigrant. They mock him as he begins to pick up the rice from the ground. Ah Sahm intervenes, trying to save the man’s dignity no matter how starving he is.

That doesn’t go over well with the cops and it gives us our first glimpse of what’s to come. When Ah Sahm quickly dispatches the cops, and is recruited into one of the biggest Tong gangs in San Francisco, the Hop Wei.

This may be a show that takes place in a western setting, specifically post civil-war, but it feels modern — specially with the language, which is very generous in it’s usage of the f-word. The almost all Asian cast exist in a Western setting that is more like Deadwood, than Gunsmoke. The costuming is almost contemporary. And it may be a small thing for some, but much of the Asian characters forego wearing the traditional queue pigtail of the period. This is significant in that the queue was actually a hairstyle imposed by the conquering Manchus to demean the Han Chinese and if one were to cut off or remove it, they were never allowed back in their country or face a death sentence.

As much as a disappointment as the final season of Game of Thrones was to me (I’m definitely working on that article), the first season of Warrior exceeds expectations. From the first episode, we are given the racial and political layout of San Francisco. There is tension between the different Tong gangs with gambling, prostitution and especially opium. There is huge tension between the Irish workers and the Chinese laborers, who they believe are stealing their jobs. And then there is a corrupt police department barely able to contain the brewing powder-keg of tension ready to explode.

Since this is based on the writings of Bruce Lee, the series is also meant to be a showcase for martial arts action. If you have watched the AMC series Into the Badlands, you will know that the martial arts in that show is it’s main selling point. But that choreography purposely goes for the more stylized wire effects and near fantasy versions of fighting. Warrior presents its fights not just in a more grounded style, foregoing what Lee used to call “that classical mess,” it can get downright brutal. You won’t see any fancy flourishes or set forms and moves that were staples of 70s era martial arts epics. You certainly won’t see gravity defying wire-work. What you will get is hard hitting grounded martial arts pioneered by Bruce Lee and seen in contemporary martial arts action films.

There is quite a stable of talented martial arts actors in the show besides the main star Andrew Koji. Jason Tobin plays Young Jun, the son of the chief Hop Wei Tong. As far as gangster performances are concerned, he is the Tong’s Sonny Corleone. Rich Ting is appropriately intimidating and lethal as “Bolo,” who is considered the Hop Wei’s best fighter. Joe Taslim, who has proven himself a dynamic martial artist in films like, The Raid: Redemption, and The Night Comes for Us, plays Li Yong, an enforcer for rival tong, the Long Zi.

On top of the top-notch action and exceptional performances lies timely and topical themes about the immigrant experience. Chinese are shunned by the white American populace. They are treated as others, uncivilized, bringing crime and disease to America, as well as taking jobs away from Americans. If this sounds familiar it is purposely so. It is an obvious commentary on the how immigrants are perceived today. And towards the end of the season, there is talks of the beginnings of infamously racist Chinese Exclusion Act.

The show is pretty much serialized but with perhaps the one exception of what could be considered filler. Yet, it is a spectacular filler. “The Blood and the Shit” is a straight up homage to classic western tropes and borrows heavily from Quentin Tarantino’s Hateful Eight. The episode takes Ah Sahm and Young Jun out of their regular element of the “blood and shit” (as Young Jun describes it) of San Francisco to Nevada as they are transporting the corpse and coffin of a Hop Wei relative. The coach driver has to make a stop at a saloon in the middle of the desert so that the horse may rest up. Besides putting up with racist remarks from fellow coach passengers, they end up having to fend off a gang of robbers. The episodes serves also to solidify the bonds of friendship that Ah Sahm and Young Jun have. But for me it is the most straight up fun of the season.

The show plays a little loose with some historical accuracy. But the tong wars were indeed real, and they were incredibly violent. The names of the gangs are different for sure. As a native San Franciscan and American born Chinese I’m a little familiar with some of those Tong names, as they are still on buildings to this day.

Although it may be confusing at times, Andrew Koji’s Ah Sahm character is the only one that speaks perfect English because his grandfather was American. Though the entire Asian cast speaks English, it only within their points of view each other. So sometimes you may here them speaking accented English in front of non-Chinese or Cantonese.

Warrior, with its hip storytelling style and willingness to take on the western genre and  tell it from the viewpoint of a marginalized and many times forgotten people that helped build this country, is unique, thought provoking, and without a doubt entertaining. It has already been renewed for a second season. I’ll be looking forward to that and highly recommend checking this first season out.

Update

I know I have been remise in mentioning the women of Warrior. I’ll try to go over them without spoiling anything, since the core of their characters play against type. Olivia Cheng play Ah Toy, a madam of a local brothel who is much more than what most people see on the surface. Dianne Doan plays a character that walks a line between the world of power plays within the Tongs and the local politicians. Joanna Vanderham plays the wife of San Francisco’s mayor, in a loveless marriage and one of the lone non-bigoted among the Americans. It goes beyond saying that they not only add to a cast of fine performances but their characters subvert stereotypes as well.

Review: “Brightburn” is Basically “What if Superman was a Child Psychopath”

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Tell me if you’ve heard this one before. A Kansas farm couple have been unsuccessful at having a child, then one day, a streak in the sky that results in a crash in the woods answers their prayers. They raise the infant child as their own. It soon becomes apparent that the child is not normal, he has extraordinary powers. He is also developing into a psychopath.

If you thought Zack Snyder created a murderverse version of Superman in his interpretations, you better sit down. Brightburn, directed by David Yarovesky, takes the trope, and turns it on its head. So basically what if Superman was an evil kid.

But let’s be clear, Brightburn is a Sony Pictures property and has nothing to do with DC or Warner Brothers. It is produced by James Gunn from a script by Mark and Brian Gunn. Once past the plot hook, Brightburn is an effective straight-up horror film with roots in the slasher genre. It was made for a budget of less than $7 million but looks like it was made for more. It helps to have a good cast too. Elizabeth Banks and David Denman play the loving and normal parents to Brandon, played by Jackson A. Dunn. This trio of casting choices makes carries the weight of the film.

When we truly see Brandon once past some home video of his infant version, he is a relatively normal 12-year old boy in small farming town of Brightburn, Kansas. It is apparent he is smarter than the other kids and he draws teasing from others for it. He has a young crush on Erica (Becky Wahlstrom), the girl who sits in front of him.

Things start to change when he realizes on day that he has superhuman strength. That night, he sleepwalks to the barn, hearing an eerie voice in his head. He unsuccessfully tries to open the barn’s trapdoor. I don’t think it would spoil anybody that it’s obvious that the spaceship that Brandon crashed in is stored in there.

It is possible that Brandon has always been a bad seed as his parents one day find under his bed magazine pages of models, but as they go from one page to another, it goes from bikini clad models to operating room pictures, and anatomy drawings. Otherwise his turn to seem to be influenced by either the development of his powers, the beginning of puberty, or just the spaceship talking to him. Nevertheless, he begins to believe himself superior to those around him as the voice in his head tells him to “take the world.” More his powers begin to manifest beyond superhuman strength and they will look familiar to anyone who knows the Superman tropes.

The film descends into slasher territory and becomes quite gory as Brandon acts against those he perceives as his enemies. His parents aren’t oblivious, however, especially his father. David Denman as Kyle Brenner plays a loving dad, but is the first to suspect his kid is not just going through normal growing pains. Elizabeth Banks is great as the always loving mother who still thinks of Brandon as her baby boy, yet even when she realizes how evil he has become you feel sorry for her.

What makes Brightburn successful is that it promises a premise, delivers on that premise and offers it up in a compact package with great performances and deft editing. It clocks in at a trim ninety minutes, yet tells its story quickly leaving open a possibility for a sequel or franchise. If anything, it could have been longer.

This movie, is not for everyone, however. It is quite gory at times with some very unsettling makeup effects. It is rated R for a reason so I would not recommend bringing young kids to see this. IF you are a horror fan you will probably enjoy this. And if you are a comic book fan who also happens to like horror, you may enjoy the unique take on the standard trope. Recommended

John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum Prepares for War

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Si vis pacem, para bellum. “If you want peace, prepare for war.”

I remember the first time I ever saw the movie The Killer and Hard Boiled. It was my first exposure to John Woo. After that, I kept seeking out not only more John Woo films like A Better Tomorrow, I was checking out all sorts of Hong Kong action movies with elaborate stunts and gun choreography.

As Hong Kong’s over the top action films started to decline (that’s a whole separate article there), it was countries like South Korea with high production values that appeared to take up the torch. And it certainly seemed like it, but in reality it would be countries like Thailand, led by instant star Tony Jaa, and Indonesia’s Raid films that would inject adrenaline into the modern martial arts action genre.

The following contains spoilers for John Wick 1 and 2

You can read my recap or watch Keanu Reeves cover the first two films in 60 seconds.

The Matrix films, starring Keanu Reeves, were clearly influenced and paid homage to the Hong Kong action films and anime. Those films were revolutionary with their mix of action and special effects. When the first John Wick (again starring Keanu Reeves) movie came along in 2014, it was not only a great action film, but it changed the way action films would look.  The John Wick films was an intense visual feast of grounded fight scenes and gunfights. It became a resounding success both critically and financially. The premise was simple, John Wick is a retired assassin who was living a normal life with his wife. But unfortunately she dies, and as her final gift to him she has a beagle puppy sent to him so that he would have someone to love. In what seems random, his house is broken into and they not only steal his ’69 Mustang, but kill his dog. And that is it, hell is unleashed on the gang and the gangsters that get in his way for revenge.

So it was inevitable that there would be a John Wick Chapter 2 which continued directly after the first one. It really was like a second chapter in a book. In this sequel though, after finally getting his car back from a chop-shop, he is approached by someone who has a marker on him. It is an unbreakable bond that he is obligated to fulfill. The second film expands upon the lore and mythos of the John Wick world. But by the end, after breaking one of the cardinal rules of assassins, he is rendered “excommunicado” with an open $14 million bounty on him.

On to John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum

The third installment of the John Wick franchise has the daunting task of not only living up to the amazing action and stunts of the previous work but also topping it. It succeeds in this in glorious fashion in both fighting scenes and shootouts that come at you one after another, with each sequence being more jaw-dropping than the last.

Chapter 3 opens within an hour of the ending of Chapter 2 with John Wick on the run as every assassin in Manhattan is after him and the huge $14 million bounty on his head. So from the beginning we are thrust into the action. That action is near relentless as we go from one elaborate scene to another. There is an early scene within the first 20 minutes or so where Wick must fight off a horde of other assassins. (Seriously, that is not any sort of spoiler.) Unarmed, he finds himself using whatever weapons he has available, It just happens to be some sort of antique shop or museum full of knives.  But just before that is a great homage to a scene from The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly.  Right away, the close quarter fight is brutal and raw – topping any other single set piece in the previous films. Look for a cameo by Tiger Hu Chen, good friend of Keanu Reeves, stuntman and assistant choreographer on the Matrix.

Now, the plot is there to not only serve the action but to expand on the lore of the Assassin’s world. It serves its purpose well — but to talk about it too much past the bare basics would spoil the film. With the price on his head, Wick looks for a way to get it lifted. To do so he must first speak to the man above the High Table, the organization that controls the assassins. Yeah, he has to speak to upper management.

Part of that journey involves a trip to Casablanca, Morocco where he will get some help from Sophia (Halle Barry), who just happens to owe Wick a marker herself. And Halle Barry not only adds additional star quality to an already loaded cast, but joins in on the gunplay action.

In the previous films, John Wick was the lone man against many, but once Halle Barry’s Sofia comes along for the ride we realize he not only has star caliber allies but star enemies as well. In addition to the accomplished martial arts actor Tiger Hu Chen earlier is an appearance by a pair of actors from The Raid films, Yayan Ruhian and Cecep Arif Rahman who play a pair admiring killers in a two-on-one fight scene that involves a lot of breaking glass. But most fun to see of all is Mark Dacascos as the leader of a gang of modern shinobi that Wick faces in the final battle (Come on, you know there would be ninjas eventually). Mark Decascos has had a long career in martial arts roles including Cradle to the Grave and most notably Brotherhood of the Wolf, but some may recognize him as the current “Chairman” from Iron Chef America. His character serves as the main villain and provides a few bits of levity as well. Decascos’ prowess is very well displayed and he seems to be having the time of his life doing such intense action.

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In non combat roles, Ian McShane and Laurence Fishburne reprise their respective roles from the previous installments. Hollywood legend, Anjelica Huston joins in to provide some back history to John Wick. And Jerome Flynn, best known as Bronn from Game of Thrones chews up a bit of scenery in his small role as a member of the High Table.

Lawrence Fishburne and Tiger Hu Chen are not the only Matrix alum to join Keanu Reeves. Look for a cameo by Randall Duk Kim who played the keymaker in the Matrix films to reprise his roll as the underworld’s go to doctor. Director Chad Stahelski not only served as martial arts stunt coordinator for the Matrix films, he was also Keanu Reeves’ stunt double. So this is nearly a family affair.

If I can lay any criticisms on the film it would be near the end in the last set of fight scenes. John Wick really should have died several times, but I guess out of professional courtesy or respect, he’s given a chance to get back on his feet on more than one occasion. But at this point in the franchise, he’s not just a guy anymore, he’s literally a bloody superhero.

A fourth chapter in the John Wick saga has already been announced, which is no surprise since the final scene before the credits roll provides the seeds for a sequel. How they could possibly continue to top the exciting action sequences from film to film is going to be the biggest mystery.

Some action films are generic. Some are outright forgettable. The John Wick films have not only been instant classics but each has been progressively outstanding in its action. This third chapter comes with the Highest Recommendation

Ninjas on motorcycles! Hell Yeah!

Movie Review: Tolkien

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Like many, I grew up reading the works of J. R. R. Tolkien and his excursions into middle-earth. Even though world building has come a long way since then with other grand epic fantasies, Tolkien paved the way not only with his imagination of his worlds but his sense of history and primarily language.

There are a few things that go into consideration when making a biographical motion picture of such a creator as Tolkien who not only has a large literary body of work but has also been the source of several huge films based on his work. One of the things to consider is what separates the artist from the art and what influences led the artist to create?

This is a Fox Searchlight production. It does not reference the Warner/New Line movies in any way. On top of that, it was made without the involvement of the Estate or family. This last part may leave a sour note, but the fact is that Tolkien estate has never authorized any sort of biographical film about Professor Tolkien, and seem unlikely to.

With all that out of the way. this biopic  directed by Finnish director Dome Karukoski is a fine dramatic picture and portrait of an artist as a young man, but of the bonds of brotherhood that that would impact him for the rest of his life. On top of that is the romance he shared with Edith Bratt, the love of his life — not only the future Mrs. Tolkien, but the Luthien to his Beren.

You can approach Tolkien as a fan of his work, but even if you know nothing about The Lord of the Rings, The Hobbit or any of his other works, you can appreciate a remarkable  period coming of age film about fellowship, young love, the horrors of war, and the lasting impact they have on us for the rest of one’s life. People expecting insight or revelations into the creation of Professor Tolkien’s world will have to be satisfied with being offered the building blocks that are at the heart of his imagination.

At a young age, he (the younger young Tolkien is played by Harry Gilby) had always had a love of languages and was an adept reader. He was home-schooled by his mother who would unfortunately die while he and his brother were quite young. He and his brother are put into foster care while Father Morgan,  a gruff priest (played full on Irish by Colm Meany) is his legal guardian. While in school, he forms a friendship with fellow students that would influence the ideas of the bonds of fellowship for the rest of life.

As a teenager (now played by Nicholas Hoult), he meets and falls in love for fellow boarding house resident Edith Bratt. Father Morgan is opposed to this on the basis that it will effect his studies and his admittance to Oxford, and she is not even Catholic.

Even when he is an Oxford student, he is not the not the best at his studies of classics, but would later find his his true calling at the prodding of a philology professor, played by Shakespearean legend Derek Jacobi.

The trailers for this film made me think this was a biographical movie that mixed in the author’s life story with his fiction in surreal fashion like Paul Shrader’s Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters. I certainly thought so from trailers, but that is not the case. The instances of surreal, dream and nightmare images of reality and fantasy elements mixing together are confined to Tolkien’s experience in the trenches of the Somme during World War I. The Battle of the Somme serves as the centerpiece to the story as most of the film is told in flashback from it.

Tolkien is a film worthy of seeing not only for fans of the Professor, but even for those who are not. It is filled with fine performances by actors of young to old. NIcholas Hoult as Tolkien brings a balanced mixture of a youth that is conflicted with what his heart’s desires and what is expected of him. Lilly Collins as Edith Bratt (who once auditioned for the role of Tauriel for Peter Jackson’s Hobbit trilogy) makes it easy to believe why she would be the eternal love of J. R. R. Tolkien.  It is also supported by a remarkable score by Thomas Newman who may have done one of his best work in years since Shawshank Redemption. Sure, the film could cover the famous years that have been the subject of many documentaries already, but that would make for a trilogy of films if it did.

Overall, this is a very entertaining film. Whether you are a fan or not, it transcends the biopic genre and presents a drama that is well made, intelligent and entertaining. Recommended.

Spoiler Free Avengers Endgame Review

 

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It was one of the greatest gambits in movie history. What began as a tease when the first Iron Man was released has finally culminated into what may be the biggest movie franchise in film history, rivaling, maybe even surpassing Star Wars. When Samuel L. Jackson showed up in the post credit scene of Iron Man and mentioned the idea of an Avengers Initiative, there was as yet no genuine plan for actually making an Avengers movie.

Even more audacious for the Avengers plan was that every member of the team was going to have their own solo movie to introduce us to the individual members of the team. The Incredible Hulk followed Iron Man (witch is possibly the least connected of the Marvel films), then came Captain America: The First Avenger, and on and on. Every movie was connected and every movie had a post credit tease that led to another movie that was upcoming. It led to the first Avengers movie, the Avengers: Age of Ultron, and last year Avengers: Infinity Wars, The Empire Strikes Back, of comic book movies dropped and like that iconic Star Wars movie from then, left audiences guessing on what will happen next.

Now, we have come to Avengers: Endgame, the culmination of ten years and twenty-two films. Was the wait worth it? Hell yes! Clocking in at three hours, it it is the longest Marvel Studios movie, yet the movie is so tightly packed that there is very little slow parts in it. And any part that may seem slow is actually a buildup to the biggest payoff in not only comic book movie history but maybe in movie history.

The final hour of Endgame is the closest that comic panels have ever become realized on the big screen. Do yourself a favor and do not wait to see this at home, or those really bad bootlegs that have already leaked. The inevitable final battle is a jaw dropping feast of sight, sound, and fist pumping fan moments.

But less you think that this is just a bunch of fan service moments action scenes (I’m looking at you, Game of Thrones season seven!) the film gives every character their featured moment. Character’s that were B-list in the past movies are given a story arc that they had sadly been missing before. Hats off to to all the actors bringing their A-game.

Ultimately Avengers: Endgame is a reward and a love letter to the fans who have stuck around for a decade and twenty-two films. There are almost too many Easter eggs, callbacks, and cameos to count, yet non of it is gratuitous or takes you out of the story. At least I did not think so. And of course there is the appearance of Stan Lee in his final filmed cameo.

I of course highly recommend watching at least the other Avengers movies first — and pretty much almost all the Marvel studio films. This really does tie everything together and gives many of the characters closure to their story arcs.  I have no reservations on seeing this multiple times, and I give it the Highest Recommendation.