The Assassin

Director: Hsiao-Hsien Hao

Released: August 2015(China)

Run Time: 107 Minutes

Not Rated

Distributor: Well Go USA Entertainment

Genre: Martial Arts/Drama

Qi Shu: Nie Yinniang
Chen Chang: Tian Ji’An
Satoshi Tsumabuki: The Mirror Polisher

The term “wuxia” is a relatively new term, appearing at the end of the Qing Dynasty in China.  It is literally translated as “martial hero.”  While the term itself is fairly new, the genre is part of traditional storytelling that dates back more than 2,000 years.  It involves a lone stranger who happens to be a martial arts expert who comes from some strange place to fight and destroy evil.  In film, wuxia has been a staple of Chinese film-making for the better part of a century.  It rose to prominence during the 60s and 70s with all those cheesy kung-fu flicks that people like myself enjoy.  It started being taken seriously with Once Upon a Time in China starring Jet Li.  There’s a lot of fantasy and wire-work involved.  When done right, it is incredibly spectacular.  Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is a really good example of a wuxia film.  It’s also the most well-known.  We’ve been seeing a lot of these movies come out of Hong Kong over the past couple of years.  The most recent and quite possibly the most compelling is The Assassin from director Hsiao-Hsien Hao.  This film takes many conventions that are prominent in wuxia and changes it up quite a bit.

The Assassin follows Nie Yinniang, a female assassin who was taken from her family when she was younger, and trained as….well, an assassin.  This is set during the 9th century Tang Dynasty.  This was a time of prosperity of sorts, but China being China, you have certain elements that are vying for control of certain regions.  The Assassin follows Yinniang as she is ordered to kill her cousin, Tian Ji’an, to whom she was betrothed once upon a time.  While the story appears to be simple, there’s a lot more going on in terms of politics and why Yinniang does what she does.  The best thing I noticed about this film is that it doesn’t treat its audience like morons.  It does not hold your hand with tons of exposition(I’m looking at you, George Lucas), but it does give you breadcrumbs to follow.  That being said, some people’s patience may be tested because this The Assassin is a slow-burner.  It moves slowly but deliberately, and without a great deal of dialogue to help you through it.  There are some fight scenes and when they do show up, they are cool, but they don’t last very long.  Calling The Assassin a martial arts movie is kind of missing the point of the film.  Yeah, it has martial arts in it, but it’s more character-driven.  Your average martial arts film only focuses on the fighting, which is not a bad thing.  I love a good fight flick as much as the next guy.  The Assassin is more about the journey of a select group of people and their relationships to each other.  This is the essence of drama, and The Assassin handles it extremely well.

From a visual standpoint, The Assassin is absolutely stunning in high-definition.  I picked this up on Blu-Ray and I’m absolutely blown away by how beautiful this movie is.  The film starts out in black-and-white, as sort of an homage to the much older films of yore.  But then the color comes in and it just stands out.  The whole film was shot in 35mm, and it is glorious.  The landscapes are simply stunning with incredible mountain ranges and even the swamps and the forests are wondrous to behold.  Everything else about the film is equally exquisite.  The costumes and sets are elaborate, yet minimal.  The one thing I noticed, and this may throw some people for a loop is the aspect ratio:  The frame in which the film is shot.  This is not your typical wide-screen presentation.  No, it’s somewhere between full frame and wide-screen.  At first, I thought I got a crappy Blu-Ray, but then I noticed that during certain scenes, it would expand.  This leads me to believe that it was a stylistic choice on the director’s part.  You know what?  It works.  It’s been a long time since I’ve seen a film shot this way, but it allows the audience to focus on the important parts of the film: The characters.  So, it was a risk on Hao’s part to do this and it pays off.

Let’s talk about the characters.  These are probably the most relatable and human characters I’ve ever seen in a martial arts flick.  The assassin herself, Yinniang, is clearly good at what she does, and it’s very evident in the fights she’s in.  She knows how to kill proficiently and quickly.  Even though, she gets her orders from her master, she doesn’t necessarily always follow through, because she thinks for herself.  She believes that killing people isn’t always a viable option.  She doesn’t always kill the people she’s fighting, but she ends the fight quickly.  Her cousin, Tian Ji’an, looks like a villain, but he really isn’t.  He’s a family man who is trying to prevent conflicts from escalating while protecting his own family.  He’s equally conflicted when Yinniang shows up.  The characters are supposed to drive the story, not the action.  The action is quite good, albeit brief.  The fights are well-choreographed and we do have a little wire-work going on, but the biggest impact of these fights is what happens before and after the action.  There’s a lot going on.

In conclusion, The Assassin is probably one of the most compelling martial arts movies I have ever seen.  It’s well-thought out and executed with some incredible visuals and landscapes.  The acting is second to none and is deserving of all the accolades that it gets.  It is one of the best movies that I’ve seen in a long time.  Is it the best?  Not really, but it’s up there.  If there’s a downside to the film, it’s that the pacing may be off-putting for some people.  The movie is only 107 minutes long, but for some people, that can be an eternity.  So, this movie is not for impatient people.  For those that are willing to take the time, The Assassin offers a unique and incredibly well-made experience that has a surprising amount of depth.  I highly recommend this one to anybody who appreciates good film-making.  10/10.

Video Game Rant: WB Games/NRS

To start, I realize that this is generally a blog about movies.  I’m also a gamer.  I enjoy video games, so I periodically talk about them.  Today, I find myself to be well….pissed off.  Why?  Let’s start at the beginning:  I’m a Mortal Kombat fan.  I’ve been a huge fan of the game franchise since the debut of the original title back in 1992.  That’s 24 years of Mortal Kombat.  I’ve played every single title in the series including the bad ones like Mortal Kombat Mythologies: Sub-Zero.  God, that was awful.  I witnessed the game transition from the 2D plane with digitized actors to a fully 3d environment, starting with Mortal Kombat 4.  It’s not the best of the series, but it was still gloriously bloody.  Things got better with Deadly Alliance, Deception, and Armageddon.  But after that, the company that produced the game, Midway Studios, closed down.  So, the remaining staff formed a company called NetherRealm Studios, and they began work on a 9th MK title.  The game’s release back in 2011 was heralded as a return to the gory ways of Mortal Kombat after the disappointing Mortal Kombat Vs. DC Universe cross-over.  Mortal Kombat 9 was a bit of a reboot of sorts, but it was absolutely fantastic.  The controls were tight, the combos were easy and brutal, and the introduction of a brutal new move, called the X-Ray was added to the mix to create a brutal new experience.  That was the last Mortal Kombat to be released for the PS3 and XBOX 360.  The follow-up, Mortal Kombat X would be the first next-gen Mortal Kombat title to be released for the new PS4 and Xbox One.  It was also released on the PC, and this is where things went horribly wrong for PC users like me.

I had pre-ordered the game, because I’m a huge fan of the series, and I wanted to be able to play as Goro, one of the classic characters of the franchise.  I had absolutely NO reason to expect that the PC version of Mortal Kombat X would be horribly broken.  I start the game, and the performance is horrible and most of the main features of the game are were missing:  No story mode, no towers, none of that.  All it had was a practice mode and a single fight option against the AI.  If it was a demo of the game, I would understand that, but this was a fully priced game at 60 bucks, and it was fucking broken.  I get it, sometimes launches don’t go according to plan, it happens.  But this was incredibly embarrassing for a triple-A game.  The game got fixed in about 12 or so hours.  I was able to review the game after putting in a number of hours.  Fun as hell, and the gameplay was solid, just as a Mortal Kombat game should be.  BUT:  The initial PC launch of the game had already done its damage.  WB Games/NRS(NetherRealm Studios) were in a rush to get the game into a far more playable state, which unfortunately ended up with a huge number of people losing all their progress.  I had found out that WB had outsourced the PC port to a substandard outfit called High Voltage Studios.  Had the port been done in-house, I believe it would have been a much stronger release.  The worst part is that WB KNEW the game had problems, and had shoved it out the fucking door anyway.

So, a couple of months later, I download a couple of DLC characters(DLC=downloadable content)including the Predator(fuck, yeah), Jason Voorhees(also fuck, yeah), and a couple of others.  Now that the game has been patched and is running very well now, we finally get an announce for a new “Kombat Pack 2” which includes the infamous Xenomorph from the Alien films, Leatherface from Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Tri-borg(three robot characters from previous games all rolled into one), and Bo Rai Cho(an ancient drunken teacher of sorts).  I’m absolutely THRILLED.  Until I found out that the new DLC pack is for the PS4 and Xbox One only.  So….why them and not the PC?  WB/NRS hasn’t said anything as of yet, and that’s pissing off a lot of people.  I’m one of them.  The game is working fine now, but it appears that WB/NRS are dropping support for the PC version regardless.  Why?  I’m sure it has absolutely nothing to do, whatsoever, with the fact that people were complaining about the disastrous release of the PC version.  You know, when people are willing to drop 60 bones on a highly anticipated video game only to have it not work when they downloaded it, they have a right to be fucking pissed.  They are just as pissed when they found out they were getting the shaft when it comes to the new DLC pack and XL edition, which includes ALL the prior DLC.  I would say that’s a pretty big “fuck you” to the PC crowd.  This isn’t the first time WB Games has given the PC base the finger.  Batman: Arkham Origins was a wreck when it was released, but they refused to patch the game, saying the needed to focus on the DLC.  Batman: Arkham Knight, the latest in the Batman Arkham series, was just as broken on PC.  So much so, that because of Steam’s(it’s a software platform for buying and downloading PC games)new refund policy, they pulled the game from the store for months while they tried to fix it.  It was released again, and it was still a terrible port.

Until WB Games and NetherRealm Studios begin to start respecting their PC customers, I refuse to give any more money towards these companies because of their shady business practices.  That means my 24 year ride with Mortal Kombat has come to an end, and it breaks my heart.  It really does.  But I cannot support companies that treat their customers like shit, and I would strongly advise other people to do the same.  So, I’m officially boycotting WB Games and NetherRealm Studios, until they stop fucking their customers in the ass.

This Is The End

Released: June 2013

Directors: Seth Rogen & Evan Goldberg

Rated R

Run Time: 107 Minutes

Distributor: Columbia Pictures

James Franco: James Franco
Seth Rogen: Seth Rogen
Jonah Hill: Jonah Hill
Jay Baruchel: Jay Baruchel
Danny McBride: Danny McBride
Craig Robinson: Craig Robinson
Michael Cera: Michael Cera
Emma Watson: Emma Watson
Rihanna: Rihanna
Kevin Hart: Kevin Hart

Writing a review for a comedy is a rather difficult thing to do.  Why?  Humor is an extremely subjective thing.  What one person finds absolutely hilarious, another person thinks it painful to listen to or watch.  I generally don’t like straight-up comedies, because they mostly don’t work for me.  It usually forced and painfully obvious that they’re TRYING to make people laugh.  The secret to good comedy is that the humor has to be natural.  It has to flow naturally.  It’s not that comedies don’t work, but some of the best comedies generally poke fun at pop culture and how people react to certain situations.  This is why I love Mel Brook’s movies or the Airplane films.  They are well-written, and the cast have really good timing.  That’s also another issue that crops up when it comes to comedies: Timing.  Timing is everything in comedy, whether it’s on film or in a club.  If you don’t get the timing right, the joke or whatever you’re lampooning falls flat.  Then again, some people just don’t have a sense of humor because they have no soul….you know, like gingers.  I’m no theologian, but I’m pretty sure that’s the case.  In any event, I’m reviewing a comedy that come out back in 2013 called This Is The End.  Sounds pretty apocalyptic, no?

The film starts out with Jay Baruchel arriving in Los Angeles to hang out with his best friend, Seth Rogen.  After spending most of the day at Rogen’s house, they go to James Franco’s house for a crazy house-warming party that’s loaded with celebrities like Rihanna, Emma Watson and Michael Cera.  A couple of hours later, Jay and Seth go to a local store to pick up some cigarettes when they see people being sucked up into the sky by blue beams of light.  With total chaos in the streets they race back to Franco’s house where a giant hole opens up in the ground with some of the party goers like Kevin Hart falling into it.  Also, Michael Cera gets impaled by a light pole.  Rarely has a movie death been so satisfying and so damned funny.  A handful of survivors decide to hold up in Franco’s house to wait for rescue.   Later, they realize that the apocalypse is happening because Jay reads about it in the bible.  So what do these guys do when the world is ending?  They party like it’s on sale for 19.99.  Then Danny McBride shows up, and all hell breaks loose……literally.  This is not your typical comedy.  They throw in a lot of special effects, some gore and a fairly serious look at what would happen if the Rapture was real.

The first thing you should notice when you read this review is the cast list.  They are all playing themselves….in a manner of speaking.  They are playing caricatures of themselves, meaning they are playing up the most ridiculous parts of their film work and it’s absolutely hilarious.  James Franco is behaving like a 14-year old girl, Michael Cera as the womanizing coke-head, and Danny McBride as a super-douchebag.  Part of what really makes this movie work IS the cast.  They are all friends, so the chemistry between the lot of them is natural, and that is what makes the comedy genuine.  Now, the comedy gets pretty dirty.  There’s a lot of sex, fart and rape jokes to go around.  Before anybody jumps my shit because I said “rape jokes,” let me explain:  Rape is not funny in most, if not all situations.  People tend to get really butt-hurt about that.  Before anybody tells me: Yes, I’m going to Hell.  This is NOT a foregone conclusion.  In all seriousness, though, the context in which rape is discussed is the hilarious part, not the act itself.  Although, seeing Jonah Hill getting raped by Satan is a….well, bizarre thing to see, because that’s how he gets possessed.  Yes, Jonah Hill gets possessed.  I don’t think I’ll ever be able to look at Jonah Hill and Satan the same way again.  If you haven’t figured it out yet, This Is The End is a bit of a send-up of established horror and disaster movies.

Now, the whole film is not all yuk-yuks, as there is some seriously violent stuff happening throughout the movie.  We see a guy getting his head ripped off by something we don’t see.  This leads to a hilarious situation where people are kicking the poor guy’s head around like a soccer ball.  There are some genuinely thrilling moments here.  When Jay and Craig “volunteer” to go a nearby house for supplies, they end up running into a demon.  I have to give the film-makers credit, the demons and creature effects are astounding.  The demons are CGI, but they are well-designed and look genuinely threatening.  The 100-foot tall version of Satan is incredible and……well-endowed.

Is This Is The End offensive?  Absolutely, if you’re religiously sensitive.  But it’s not the first movie to jab religion in the eye.  Movies have been doing that for a long time.  One of the most entertaining of which, is Kevin Smith’s Dogma.  You want to talk about religiously insensitive?  That one takes the cake.  While This Is The End definitely pokes fun at the whole religious aspect of the end of the world, it also has a fairly thoughtful look at how people should behave in case the Rapture should happen.  The movie is absolutely bonkers and I definitely recommend it.  9/10 is what I give this one.

WTF? 10 Cloverfield Lane?!

You know, with the Internet and social media like Facebook, Instagram, Reddit, and all that jazz, it’s extremely difficult for a movie studio to release a film completely under the radar.  Even more rare is when a trailer is dropped two months before the film is supposed to be released.  It just doesn’t happen.  But with all the fuss over Deadpool, Batman V. Superman, and all those big time blockbusters, something like this just shows up out of nowhere.  I’m going to assume that this is a spin-off of sorts from Cloverfield, a found-footage Kaiju monster movie from 2008.  If that is the case, I’m absolutely down for it.  Now, after Cloverfield was released, there was a lot of speculation that a sequel was going to be in the works, given how the film ended, but all talk about any follow-up had ceased shortly after the film hit home video.  I knew that they were doing some writing or some such, but where the hell did THIS come from?  Apparently, this teaser was attached to Michael Bay’s 13 Hours film.

Seriously, how the hell did we not know about this?  Usually a film is generally announced before it starts filming.  It’s standard procedure for MOST film companies.   I loved Cloverfield.  I thought it was very interesting in the way it was made, filmed and produced.  It was a solid thriller.  It was also a found-footage film, a genre which I’m STILL not really a big fan of, but I’m warming up to it.  10 Cloverfield Lane stars John Goodman, Mary Elizabeth Winstead and John Gallagher, Jr.  What’s it about?  I don’t have a fucking clue.  Neither does anybody else.  The fact that J.J. Abrams, who is producing the film, managed to sneak this under MY radar is a major achievement.  Congratulations, J.J. Abrams:  We have been successfully bamboozled.  Now I’m curious about what you got there.  The film releases on March 11, 2016.  That’s LESS than two months away.  I’m going to assume that this is a low-budget movie.  That makes sense, Cloverfield was pretty low-budget for what it was.  This is a pretty short post by my usual standards, but I figured this was something I’d talk about.  Very few movies of this sort get by me.  Bravo.  Let’s just hope that it’s any good.  If it’s not, we can close the book on the franchise for good.  I’ve got my fingers crossed.  Please be good, please be good, please be good.