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Ultimate Ninja, The

Posted by Josh Samford On January - 21 - 2010
The Plot: You’re going to have to bear with me on this one. For reasons that I’ll get into with the review, the actual “plot” in The Ultimate Ninja isn’t exactly the easiest thing in the world to wrap your head around. With that said, it goes something like this – we begin with a ninja practicing his martial arts before being ambushed outside of a shrine. The Red Ninja Master dies, but not before passing along the Golden Ninja Warrior shrine. A golden object that is supposed to grant the ultimate ninja powers to whoever possesses it. On the opposite side of the spectrum of the Red Ninjas, we have the Black Ninjas who’s leader desperately wants to get his hands on this Golden Ninja Warrior and will stop at nothing to attain it. So Red Ninja sets out on his journey for revenge and lures the Black Ninjas out into the open to fight him. At the same time, we follow the happenings of a small restaurant in the middle of a small village that is ruled by a corrupt politician named Roger. Roger has tormented the townspeople by enacting his own brand of law & order, using a group of martial art students to beat anyone who disobeys. This group is being instructed by an older gentleman who unfortunately is forced into the situation as it’s the only way he can make money to support his family. Unknown to all however, on the outskirts of town a young man who’s family was slaughtered by Roger and his goons has trained his body into an instrument of destruction. He is out for revenge, and thus Roger’s time is drawing to a close.


The Review
Who knew I would cover a martial arts movies so soon after the massive bender that was A Very Kung Fu Christmas, which usually burns me out on this sort of thing. However, about halfway through The Ultimate Ninja I knew I would have to put a few words down. My first ever Godfrey Ho movie, it seems to really resonate with everything I have heard about the filmmaker up until this point. Godfrey Ho could be seen as the Ed Wood of Hong Kong, a shameless filmmaker who made cheap and terribly inept movies with the hope of turning over a profit. Whereas with Ed Wood you get the idea that he really was just a simple guy trying his best to make a scary movie, Godfrey Ho lacks the heart of naivete that makes Ed Wood such a likable character. Ho just wants to make a cheap buck and whatever it takes to do that he seems okay with it. The Ultimate Ninja is a shining example that cutting two movies together just isn’t the most intelligent way to make a movie and at the end of the day. I mean, that point obviously doesn’t need to be made – but someone should have clued ol’ Godfrey in on that matter. When you work like this, no matter what you’re going to have a festering turd that almost no one would want to see. No one but a masochist like myself.

Godfrey Ho made his name amongst film geeks by his less than savory habit of recycling old and obscure footage within his movies. By taking older forgotten martial art movies from Taiwan, mainland China or wherever and then going out and shooting a few hours worth of footage with several Caucasian actors imported from all over – he was able to make filmmaking into a true assembly line. You see, with an infinite number of independent martial art movies and several hours worth of new footage with these White Ninjas – he would try and hack, slash and cut these movies together. Taking a few hours worth of footage and making it into ten or twelve different “Ninja” movies. The number of movies he could make with all of this footage was infinite. Although I doubt you could call it “loved”, I do suppose The Ultimate Ninja is one of the more known films of his. After sitting through it, if this is one of his better accomplishments then god help me if I dare try my hand at any more of his work. Expecting an over the top Ninja-sploitation movie, I can’t tell you how disappointed I was to find that The Ultimate Ninja turned out to be so dreadfully dull.

It might seem impossible to label a movie boring when there’s a fight scene starting or ending ever ten minutes – but believe me, when context and story are thrown out the window as they are in this movie; you can’t help but wonder just what the point is after a while. It is just so frustrating when watching, since I actually wanted to be engaged with the movie. I wanted Godfrey Ho to be some kooky filmmaker that I felt I could turn to for some easy entertainment, but Ultimate Ninja doesn’t really promise a whole lot. What hampers it and keeps you from ever actually becoming involved in the movie at all is that it is just unintelligible. No matter how hard I tried, there’s just no wrapping your head around this movie. It’s as if you’re watching a Kung Fu flick while high. Characters walk into the movie and disappear for nearly the entire portion of the movie. They fight and choose teams without ever actually having any kind of motivation explained. Plot developments come, go and if you’re lucky they might actually pop up again during the final minutes of the movie. While this may sound silly and dumb enough to be fun, trust me on this one, it’s just frustrating.

The entire addition of Ninjas within the movie feels as tacked on and uninspired as you may very well imagine. I halfheartedly expected Ho to somehow tie these two lines of thought together: the black and red ninja battling each other over a golden doll and the far more epic story detailing the forces of good teaming up to take down Roger (what a villain name!). However, these stories never tie into one another. It’s as if you’re watching two separate movies that are cut together every few minutes. On their own, I think either thread of story could have made a decent movie. The ninja plot, Ho’s contributions, are fun in all of the right ways I had expected. Ninjas are shown to be supernatural beings who can teleport, jump over buildings and probably eat trains if they wanted to. This stuff could have been really great in full length! It’s just unfortunate that we get this hacked to bits story that ultimately doesn’t even make sense. There’s a full subplot about the Black Ninja’s brother who is supposed to be coming to town that is actually NEVER resolved during the entire course of the movie. That can’t even technically be a spoiler, since there’s NOTHING to spoil! Now, the restaurant story dealing with Roger – this too possibly could be a decent little kung fu flick without Ho hacking it to pieces. The choreography, in both movies, isn’t really quality stuff. It’s pretty ugly sometimes, but it doesn’t look phony looking or slow. The story, if told in some way that actually makes sense, actually seems pretty interesting as well. Unfortunately, Ho went power mad and ultimately we’re given this mutant love child that denigrates all of the work completely.

The Conclusion
If you’re like me, no matter how much I warn – you’ll still explore Godfrey Ho’s filmography. Heck, I won’t lie, at some point I too will probably dig around for something better; but it won’t be for a while. The Ultimate Ninja just isn’t the movie to sell the filmmaker, I’ll say that. I give it a one out of five, because there is actually some promise within both streams of narrative. They don’t go anywhere, but it keeps the movie just barely watchable. Stuart Smith also goes way over the top, but he’s not able to add any brownie points for the movie like he was able to with Bloodfight. I wouldn’t really recommend this one, even for a netflix rental. However, if you just have to, keep in mind that you’ve been warned.



Tokyo Sonata Review

Posted by Josh Samford On January - 18 - 2010
Heya people! From Takashi Miike to Kiyoshi Kurosawa? This really is my website! I’ve been sitting on this review since December and had to hold it back for the previously written reviews that were put off due to the Kung Fu Christmas festivities. Anyhow, it’s here and it is spectacular! Easily one of Kurosawa’s best films and one of the best movies I have seen in a long time! Check out the review and then check out the movie!

The Plot: Tokyo Sonata tells the story of a family on the verge of crisis. The father figure has just been laid off from his job which has outsourced the majority of their positions to China, their eldest son is never at home any more and the youngest son has an incident at school. When passing along a profane book during class, his teacher stands him up and confronts him about it. He doesn’t believe the young man when he says its not his, so the son fires back at the teacher and points out the fact that he saw him reading a pornographic comic on the train just the day before. This sends the classroom into revolt as the students no longer feel the need to respect his authority. The son feels immense regret and never intended for the situation to come about, but the damage has been done. Meanwhile the father figure is out wandering in free-food lines during the day and visiting the unemployment office on a daily basis trying to find work. Keeping the secret from his wife and children is tearing him apart but he makes friends with another old classmate who is in the same position. Together they try to keep up the appearance of working every day while drawing unemployment and severance pay. The mother figure has recently acquired her driver’s license and desperately seeks attention from her husband or the world. She wants a car, something fast and showy so she can get out into the world for herself feeling her days as a stay at home mother are diminishing. What will happen to this family in this new Tokyo?

CONTINUE READING THE REVIEW HERE

Tokyo Sonata

Posted by Josh Samford On January - 18 - 2010
The Plot: Tokyo Sonata tells the story of a family on the verge of crisis. The father figure has just been laid off from his job which has outsourced the majority of their positions to China, their eldest son is never at home any more and the youngest son has an incident at school. When passing along a profane book during class, his teacher stands him up and confronts him about it. He doesn’t believe the young man when he says its not his, so the son fires back at the teacher and points out the fact that he saw him reading a pornographic comic on the train just the day before. This sends the classroom into revolt as the students no longer feel the need to respect his authority. The son feels immense regret and never intended for the situation to come about, but the damage has been done. Meanwhile the father figure is out wandering in free-food lines during the day and visiting the unemployment office on a daily basis trying to find work. Keeping the secret from his wife and children is tearing him apart but he makes friends with another old classmate who is in the same position. Together they try to keep up the appearance of working every day while drawing unemployment and severance pay. The mother figure has recently acquired her driver’s license and desperately seeks attention from her husband or the world. She wants a car, something fast and showy so she can get out into the world for herself feeling her days as a stay at home mother are diminishing. What will happen to this family in this new Tokyo?


The Review
I like to think that I’ve been flying the Kiyoshi Kurosawa flag for quite some time now. Although, with the release of Cure I think almost any critic that saw it immediately knew we were dealing with a master filmmaker. Still, it’s unfortunate that his name didn’t immediately take off after that movie. Years passed and with the popularity of Tadanobu Asano it seems, Bright Future took off as another well known feature of his here in the states but there’s just so much more to this man’s output. He is without question one of the most consistently breathtaking filmmakers out there. No matter the genre, no matter how basic a story may seem the man knows how to manipulate his audience. He takes the most average of story structures and adds this strange flare and fascination inside of them that you’re drawn inside of the story and before you know it, you’re feeling the movie. Few artists can provoke these kinds of reactions and I think Kurosawa is a master of making his audience feel his movies. Every time I go into one of his movies, I know that by the final shot I am going to have this feeling of pressure on my chest. Many of his films truly do provoke a physical reaction from me when I first watch them and Tokyo Sonata is just another in a long line.

After the credits finally rolled and the silence filled the room during those end credits, I could feel the grin on my face from ear to ear. Kiyoshi Kurosawa has done it again and this time he delivers his most human effort yet. When I first got wind that his latest was going to be a very straight familial drama, I just thought “oh well, just another thing for him to do well”, but in a lot of ways its as if it’s the perfect format for him to work in. He’s able to take these characters he so often creates, that you care so much about and he delves them into this very real world with these very real issues that confound them. Tokyo Sonata delivers emphatically over its two hour timespan and develops these incredibly three dimensional characters to the point where I personally was fully absorbed in the film itself. Sitting back, even though watching it on the small screen, all I could focus on was this story. This little story that pops off the screen in such a huge manner. Kurosawa floods the film with characterization and provokes some truly monumental performances. Perhaps some of the best acting I’ve ever really noticed in a Japanese film to this date.

From the most basic of characters up to the main cast, everyone is just so very good here. Even the school teacher, who’s role isn’t exactly a huge one, is so brilliant in his time on screen. Every one in the cast really gave their all for their project and it shows. The standout of the cast for me has to be Teruyuki Kagawa the father figure Ryuhei Sasaki who goes through so many emotional changes throughout the movie and remains so sympathetic. Truly remarkable. The way both he and the film starts somewhat light in the way it deals with the loss of his job, but then everything slowly becomes darker as the realization sets in that this situation isn’t one to be trapped in for a long period of time. There’s this really emotional moment that comes along when we lose a certain character, one who doesn’t really have a huge role, but is still felt so passionately. If you have seen it, you’ll know who I am referring to but if you haven’t, come back after the movie. That sequence made me sit back and just say ‘wow’. To take a rather small character and flesh him out in such a way, relate him to the parable of our own story here in such a direct way, that the passing of this character effects our own viewing… I am just so often left speechless by Kiyoshi Kurosawa, but I think his treatment of his characters and the performances he manages to get out of his cast with this movie is the real story here.

Getting back to the father figure, his emotional transformation throughout the movie is spellbinding. The way Kurosawa gets inside of this character’s head and allows us to see exactly what is happening inside of this family from all directions. There’s a sequence in the movie where our father figure denies his son piano lessons on the basis of it just being a whim, and although Kurosawa never comes out and points us in the direction, we still know the real reason he refuses it is due to financial reasons. He can’t let on to this for his wife or children’s sake, but as the movie goes along and times become more and more desperate we see this rock solid father figure chisel away and become less and less of himself. Doing things he ordinarily wouldn’t do. I just think that it’s amazing that despite everything that happens, it’s still so crystal clear why this character is still respectable and sympathetic. He is misunderstood, but so is everyone in the family circle. From the mother who wants to get out and not feel so trapped, to the eldest son who wants to join the American military and the youngest son who feels so passionate about music but feels forced to hide it from his entire family. There’s some really heartbreaking drama caught in Tokyo Sonata but at the center of it all is the need and love for family.

The look of Tokyo Sonata is an interesting mix. Although usually with Kurosawa you can expect a lot of abandoned or decrepit looking buildings, small cramped little apartments or green outdoor areas. Tokyo Sonata is a really different kind of beast however, with a very open and large home that our characters live within. Really clean and sterile office buildings. The only real touches of traditional Kurosawa are the scenes that take place on the free lunch line, which is trash littered and not so pretty. That or the massive line all the way down a stairwell that makes up the unemployment office. Kurosawa paints every part of Tokyo as this cramped breeding ground of either those on their way to work or looking for their own employment. There are some amazing shots of what look like hundreds of people walking in one direction away from a living division towards what we assume to be the business district. The streets are literally packed with people heading to work, while our characters are just lost somewhere in the mix. There’s a great deal of subtext to be found here about modern Japan, commercialism and the level of importance placed on work instead of family, but that’s another paragraph to itself.

The Conclusion
From my initial hearing-about the project all the way through to seeing the movie, I was continually reminded of Toshiaki Toyoda’s equally brilliant Hanging Garden. If you’re familiar with that movie then you just have to see Tokyo Sonata. Both films kind of show the destruction of the Japanese family unit as well as their resurrection. Kurosawa’s film may be one of the best of his impressive career and I found myself amazed at every turn in its wonderful story. An absolute must see and an unquestionable five out of five for me. Check it out ASAP, it’s available from Eureka! DVD.



Shinjuku Outlaws

Posted by Josh Samford On January - 14 - 2010
The Plot: The story begins in Shinjuku with the boss of a Yakuza crime family sitting in the hospital dying of cancer. The bosses impending death scares the family and they think that when their rivals find out about the shift change in the upper echelon of the group, that they’ll take it as their time to move in on their territory. So, looking to make the first move the bosses son turns to Katsuichi Yomi (Hiroyuki Watanabe) to kill the boss of this rival gang. He is given a gun, arranges to be picked up by the law if he survives the attack and starts looking for the boss of their rivals. When he tracks the old man to a bowling alley, he goes in guns a-blazing. He takes out the old man (in front of his granddaughter, who’s face is splattered with blood) but gets mowed down by his bodyguards. When he arrives at the hospital, he falls into a coma. For the next ten years he lays asleep in a medical ward of a prison. When he finally awakens, the whole world has changed around him. His best friend Eto has run off with his woman Ayumi and the two now run a small time Filipino prostitution ring. Eto has himself in a decent amount of debt so on Yomi’s return he finds himself at the wrong place at the wrong time, as Eto has been kidnapped by a group he owes money to and they are now looking to extort to get their cash back. Yomi, who everyone assumed would hunt down and kill Eto for what seems like betrayal, instead risks his life to save his former partner. The yakuza takes notice of Yomi and decides they want him in their organization and make him an offer he can’t refuse. Yomi will have to battle his own personal demons as well as a crooked cop, the mob and the Taiwanese mafia.


The Review
Like so many people from my age demographic that are now into Asian cinema, Takashi Miike served as my gateway drug. If you visited Varied Celluloid in its earliest days, the climate of our discussions always seemed to be focused on the man. I spent the better part of the past decade watching his movies, literally going through anything bearing his name that I could possibly sit down and watch. I even bought a copy of Isola The Multi Personality Girl because he had a small cameo in it. Truthfully, if you ever watch that movie you’ll learn he’s no more than an extra in it really. Still, I was very dedicated to The Mad Dog of Japanese Cinema. In the past few years however, I’ve slowed down my search for new films of his. It was just sort of a natural progression. I felt as if maybe I was dedicating too much time just to his filmography rather than branching out and becoming a more well rounded viewer. There’s also that feeling of being burned out on his work, I can’t deny. It think I just needed to get out and check out other things and maybe it’s the same for some of you. However, even after feeling so burned out, every time I go back and watch something of his that I haven’t seen before – I am blown away by just how impressive of a filmmaker he tends to be. With films like Sukiyaki Western Django and Zebraman, two films I didn’t actually expect to enjoy, I was reminded just why I focused so much of my time and energy on this director. He’s a brilliant filmmaker with the track record to prove it. Shinjuku Outlaws is actually one of his earlier films and what some consider his first movie that really represent his own personal style. That’s a statement I can’t really argue with.

This comes from Miike’s earlier days when he toyed around in the V-Cinema market mainly. For those unaware, V-Cinema is more than just a Vidcast that happens once a month. V-Cinema is essentially a name for the Japanese straight to video market. A market place made up of low budget Yakuza flicks and some other strange exploitation. Shinjuku Outlaws, mainly the credit sequences, definitely reflects that V-Cinema budget too. This is Takashi Miike so you can expect some artistic flourishes despite the budget or the importance of the project. However, this is early in his career so at this point he’s just finding his voice so by and large the movie turns out to be a very pattern Takashi Miike Yakuza movie. Speaking for myself though, I am totally cool with that. Miike does a yakuza movie unlike any other Japanese director I know of. So many of these movies seem to get torn to bits by their “day to day” take on the Yakuza lifestyle. Miike likes to really implement his own more interesting take on the genre. Whether it’s through neat character quirks or whatever it might be, I just don’t think I’ve seen a boring Miike directed Yakuza movie. Although this particular film isn’t my favorite of the bunch that he has done, I will say that when Miike does a more subdued version of these films and doesn’t shy completely away from genre – he really shows how good a formula driven story can actually be.

Although it doesn’t feature a lot of the more bizarre elements that have kind of defined Miike’s filmic library for Western audiences, if you know the man you’ll spot a lot of really familiar ideas that he would later expound upon. For one, Miike loves to include elements of foreigners striving in Japan through a lot of his movies. Movies like Shinjuku Triad Society, Blues Harp and Dead or Alive might be the best example of this. Shinjuku Outlaws is no exception as it covers a section of Taiwanese gangsters looking to take over the Yakuza rackets. The most interesting use of this element is the little Filipino prostitute who Yomi strikes up a relationship with. She’s in this other country, working as a prostitute for the mob and at the same time is a practicing Christian. She’s an absolute outsider but Yomi feels compassion for her and sees his own relationship with the world mirrored through her. You can draw connections between this pairing with many of Miike’s lover-duos throughout his filmography. Also, if you know anything about Miike and his films you can guess that most couples in his version of the crime world are usually doomed from the start.

Another Miike touch, one that’s got him in a lot of hot water before, is the torture of women. Shinjuku Outlaws brings this back with full force in a particularly nasty scene featuring a poor young woman being bashed around an apartment building. She is thrown down stairs, her head slammed into doors, she’s shoved, she’s punched multiple times before finishing the beatdown in the bathroom. This scene kind of stands out in the movie as it’s hard to see any real point to it other than to show how brutal the world in which our characters reside is. It’s a brutal moment that truthfully might not have been all that necessary, at least the brutality of it surely wouldn’t seem necessary. At the end of the day though, the scene doesn’t really make or break the movie as a whole. Just another reoccurring theme from Miike’s body of work. Surprisingly though, there’s really not a whole lot in the movie as far as Miike regulars goes, something I found surprising from an early Miike effort. Still, the cast here is very good for what the script calls for. That is to say, it doesn’t call for much more than solid line delivery and looking “hard”. Which is an apt description for the entire cast honestly. Everyone here is trying to play up there onscreen toughness and doing a pretty good job of it. Hiroyuki Watanabe, who plays Yomi, really carries the movie well. He’s a stoic actor that sells the story with his on-screen charisma. I’ll also go out and say that he has a really interesting look. He has these wide eyes and defined face. He’s an actor I’m not really familiar with, but I wouldn’t mind exploring more of his movies.

One of the best segments in the movie comes during the final twenty minutes. It best resembles a mix between the Godfather’s baptism sequence and the opening for Dead or Alive. We see the Taiwan mafia using Kung Fu on their victims, literally dancing in the streets while shooting someone and ending this little segment with one of the best visual moments of the movie as we watch a Taiwanese gangster urinate on a Yakuza in broad daylight before walking away from him and blowing his brains out at point blank range. If nothing else in the movie reveals Miike as his usual genre-defying self, it is this little montage. It’s probably going to pop up as most everyone’s favorite sequence in the movie, because the rest of it is sort of a ‘by the numbers’ affair. That’s what the movie comes down to though really.

The Conclusion
I think a lot of people might actually take a lot less from it than I did, especially those looking for something a little different from maybe Yakuza Demon. If you’re like me though and you dig that Miike title, then maybe you’ll get something out of Shinjuku Outlaws. It’s not a perfect movie, so I have a hard time seeing it as a four out of five. I think the fitting score is a proper three. It may be a high three, I certainly like it a lot more than just an average movie – but it just is what it is.



Red Room 2 Review

Posted by Josh Samford On January - 5 - 2010
Ahh, Kung Fu Christmas is now out of the way, so what’s next for VC? Well, first up I have several reviews to post (although my review for Women’s Prison Massacre will have to wait until I can find my DVD again to grab screencaps!) and I should almost be set for the month on that front. Aside from that, I’ll be working with Coffin Jon on the VCinema podcast which should be pretty amazing. We’ll be covering Riki-Oh: The Story of Ricky on that first show and hopefully we’ll be recording soon! Keep your fingers crossed! For right now, I’m working on a new top-head for Varied Celluloid and the VCinema web page. Keep an eye out folks!

The Plot: The King Game is simple. Four contestants are placed in one room with a cage in the corner. Each contestant draws a card, with the winner getting to choose what two other contestants do inside of the cage for an allotted period of time. If you back out, give up or die – you lose your chance at 10 million yen. The game stays the same, but the contestants are always different. This time out we’ve got the forty year old divorced ex-police officer who needs the money to alleviate the considerable gambling debt hovering over his head. He is ill tempered and a serious degenerate with nothing left to lose. Then you’ve got the 32 year old ex-housewife who has fallen under the rule of a cult leader who has ordered her onto the show. She is willing to martyr herself for her religion, which could make her more dangerous than the others. Next is a young man of 28 years old, who claims to simply want to play the game. For no real reason at all. He almost seems bored to even be going through with all of this. Is he insane or is he hiding something? Last but not least there is the young 20 year old girl who has already played the game three times and won each of them. She is a King Game Professional! With her introduction, the stakes are raised another 10 million yen. So, with 20 million yen riding on the game and a seasoned pro in there as well look for these contestants to push each other harder than ever before. With more horrid behavior and devastating consequences based on their incredible greed, this game could be the nastiest yet.




CONTINUE READING THE REVIEW HERE

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Varied Celluloid is a film website intent on delivering views on movies from all genres. Started in 2003, the website has been steadfast in its goal and features a database of over 500 lengthy reviews. If you would like to contact us about writing for the website or sending screeners, please visit the about page located here.

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