Category Archives: Foreign

Ashfall (2019, Kim Byung-seo and Lee Hae-jun)

I don’t know how long it would’ve taken me to see Ashfall if it hadn’t been for a blogathon. Maybe never. While I’m a Ma Dong-seok fan because how can you not be, I’ve always been lukewarm on top-billed Lee Byung-hun. Lee’s not actually the lead; the lead is Ha Jung-woo, who I don’t follow. So, yeah… probably wouldn’t have seen Ashfall if I hadn’t specifically been looking for a disaster movie and also wanted to watch a (relatively) new South Korean movie.

So I’m glad I saw Ashfall, against the various odd. Writers and directors Kim Byung-seo and Lee Hae-jun don’t have many—or possibly any—original ideas in the film, which has a real-life volcano Baekdu Mountain erupting and threatening all life on the Korean Peninsula, North and South. Lee’s a North Korean double agent (or triple agent), it’s never clear. Possibly quadruple. Ma is a Korean-American scientist who finds himself drug into the government response because he’s the one who’s been trying to tell them the volcano is dangerous—I wonder if it’s the Korean equivalent of a Yellowstone “vulcanist”–for years. Ha is the Army bomb tech who’s got two days left on his compulsory military service. Ha’s a bit of an eccentric who can never remember his appointments with pregnant wife Suzy Bae, who doesn’t quite look sixteen years younger than Ha but definitely looks a little younger. They try to play it off with Ha being just immature but… he’s more like just unreliable. It’s unclear.

So the President (Choi Kwang-il very good in a small part) puts Jeon Hye-jin in charge of figuring out how to not go the way of Pompeii and she brings in Ma, who’s got a plan involving detonating nuclear warheads in a copper mine because Ma really likes Broken Arrow, but South Korea doesn’t have any nukes so they have to go steal some from North Korea even though they’re really friendly in this nearish, post-nuclear North Korea, but also pro-disarmament North Korea. Not important. What’s important is spy Lee knows where there are some nukes and they know where Lee’s at because he’s got a GPS tracker in him. The real Army is going in to extract him and go find some nukes, Ha’s team is there to get the nukes transferred into a special case to nuke the volcano.

It’s kind of a Lee and Ha buddy movie, also kind of not because they don’t have any common foes. Not really. The U.S. Army shows up to humiliate South Korea, which Lee finds really amusing, but they’re not really a plot impediment. They’re just something else the movie throws into the batter, albeit with a lot of overt subtexts. Robert Curtis Brown is actually find as the shitty American ambassador, which fooled me into thinking it wouldn’t be crappy American acting in a South Korean movie for the rest but then, of course, it was crappy American acting in a South Korean movie for the rest. Michael Ray is profoundly bad as the general. Though Jai Day could be worse as the guy on the ground.

So most of it’s just Lee and Ha being awful to one another while getting through “Mission: Impossible: Bomb Disposal Unit” with some earthquake stuff thrown in. There’s some great CGI disaster shots in Ashfall but there’s also a lot of bad directing during the disaster scenes too. Kim and Lee are far more successful combining narrative tropes than they are executing mix and match action set pieces. The first one, Ha in a car chase type sequence during the first earthquake, shows they clearly don’t have it cracked and nothing else in the film is ever any better. You eventually just have to give it a pass on that type of action because at least the visuals are interesting. Ashfall’s an odyssey. Lots of different locations and settings. And it often looks great—Kim Ji-yong’s photography, whoever does the CGI; Ashfall’s a fine looking film.

Well, except when it looks like Kim’s got the “soap opera mode” turned on and the artifice shines bright, which happens more in the second half than the first. The first has the most successful visual sequences. The second half is when it needs to have the action sequences….

Unfortunately, the directors just aren’t very good at directing action scenes. It would help immensely.

The acting’s all fine or better. Ma and Jeon have the worst parts of the top-billed but still give the best performances. The material’s so weak. It’s a wonder what they do with it. Lee’s good enough I’m going to have to give him another chance, but he’s also a lot better than Ha, which isn’t what the movie needs.

It’s too long by twenty minutes, but Ashfall’s more than a good enough action-spy-disaster movie.

1/4

CREDITS

Written and directed by Kim Byung-seo and Lee Hae-jun; director of photography, Kim Ji-yong; music by Bang Joon-seok; production designer, Kim Byung-han; produced by Kang Myung-chan; released by CJ Entertainment.

Starring Lee Byung-hun (Lee Joon-Pyeong), Ha Jung-woo (Jo In-Chang), Jeon Hye-jin (Jeon Yoo-Kyung), Ma Dong-seok (Kang Bong-Rae), Suzy Bae (Choi Ji-Young), Michael Ray (General Michaels), Robert Curtis Brown (Ambassador Wilson), and Choi Kwang-il as the President.



The Raid (2011, Gareth Evans), the international version

For the first forty-five minutes or so, The Raid is able to keep going on the idea lead Iko Uwais is going to be the most kick ass fighter in the movie. There a handful of short expository scenes throughout the film, plus a prologue, where Uwais prays, does some martial arts workouts (it’s all Indonesian martial arts in the film), kisses pregnant wife Fikha Effendi goodbye, has plot twist foreshadowing moment with dad Henky Solaiman, and is off to work—but otherwise it’s all action. For a while it’s shooting action, as Uwais and his fellow SWAT team members infiltrate a high-rise tenement run by drug lord Ray Sahetapy. Once it goes to martial arts action, however, it’s all martial arts action, finally letting Uwais deliver on what the prologue promised.

Except by then we’ve already seen Yayan Ruhian and the movie doesn’t even pretend Uwais is going to surpass Ruhian. When Uwais does finally get around to fighting him, it’s Donny Alamsyah teaming up with Uwais to fight Ruhian. Director Evans knows no one’s going to think Uwais can handle this one on his own, which sort of leaves Uwais an awkward action hero. He starts the movie a renegade—because he’s the only caring SWAT cop, which we know because they were ready to kill civilian Iang Darmawan for being around and Uwais steps in to save the guy—ends up doing the action scenes out of a couple different buddy cop movies, then ends it all solo, even though he’s with a literal cop buddy for it. But it never feels like Uwais is getting short-changed, at least not in the second half; the hero of the first half is Joe Taslim. He’s the sergeant and the only one who knows there’s something shady about the raid because he knows Pierre Gruno is a shady guy. Meanwhile Gruno doesn’t want cannon fodder like Uwais getting in his way, even though Gruno’s not a martial arts bad ass like everyone else in the movie.

The Taslim as lead thing is just weird because director Evans just assumes the audience is going to go for it. The Raid has some beautifully executed action sequences and some great fight choreography, but Evans’s best instinct is for what works with the cast. The movie starts with Uwais, sticks with Uwais—introducing Taslim as the leader and quickly establishing his relationship with Gruno—but when it’s time for Taslim to take on Ruhian, it’s not a supporting character’s fight scene. It’s the big hero’s fight scene.

Uwais’s arc sort of stalling out probably doesn’t help him maintain the spotlight. After the first big action sequence, Uwais has a whole “help wounded comrade” survive arc. Tegar Satrya’s the wounded comrade. The movie’s only ever established he’s a dick, which makes Uwais saving him somewhat more dramatic maybe, but no more entertaining to watch. Plus Satrya’s unlikable. Only he and Gruno are unlikable. Everyone else, good or bad, is enjoyable to watch. Like Alfridus Godfred, who’s basically just “Machete Guy,” because everyone gets their hands on a machete. Godfred’s terrifying, just a walking embodiment of probable dismemberment. But you want to see him, you want to see him more, as the film builds to whatever fight sequence he’s going to participate in. Again, Evans has great instincts for rising action scene tension.

The drama stuff, involving Uwais, Alamsyah, Gruno, Darmawan, and Sahetapy? Eh. Sahetapy’s is the best because Sahetapy’s a very evil hoot of a villain. Evans also knows how violent to get and not to get, when to show, when to tell, when to imply. But the drama? It’s take it or leave it. It’s not bad, just pedestrian and superfluous. Or should be.

See, while everyone who’s got a big fight scene—Taslim, Uwais, Alamsyah, and, obviously, Ruhian—is great at the fighting… Evans isn’t great at the directing. He’s good enough at it for a while, but when it’s the marathon Ruhian vs. Uwais and Alamsyah fight? It gets boring. Evans can showcase his actors’ skills but he can’t keep them compelling. Evans also edited the film and most of the editing is excellent, but the longer fight scenes—usually when there’s not scenery around to damage—the cuts are just between not great shots. It’s a bummer.

Nice photography from Matt Flannery and Dimas Imam Subhono, great music by Mike Shinoda and Joseph Trapanese (which is the difference between this international version and the original, plus an added subtitle, Redemption, because of rights issues). The Raid is about as good as you can get for an all-action martial arts movie with the barest hints of a real story and flat direction on the martial arts themselves. It’s very impressive work from Evans and company.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Written, directed, and edited by Gareth Evans; directors of photography, Matt Flannery and Dimas Imam Subhono; music by Mike Shinoda and Joseph Trapanese; produced by Ario Sagantoro; released by Sony Pictures Classics.

Starring Iko Uwais (Rama), Joe Taslim (Jaka), Donny Alamsyah (Andi), Yayan Ruhian (Mad Dog), Pierre Gruno (Wahyu), Ray Sahetapy (Tama), Tegar Satrya (Bowo), Iang Darmawan (Gofar), Eka ‘Piranha’ Rahmadia (Dagu), Verdi Solaiman (Budi), and Alfridus Godfred (Machete Gang #1).


Elite Squad (2007, José Padilha)

Elite Squad is about how hard it is to be a fascist stormtrooper in Rio de Janeiro, because not only do you have to deal with militarized criminals, corrupt cops, smooth-talking (and sexy) liberals, you also might have a wife who doesn’t like you being a fascist stormtrooper or some dead kid’s mom come ask you to help find his body because you left it, but the worst thing is how you yourself know it’s wrong to be a fascist stormtrooper and you can’t make the shakes go away.

The only way to make them go away is to fully commit and wouldn’t that development be the greatest tragedy, to watch narrator and “Elite Squad” captain Wagner Moura—it’s not called Elite Squad, it’s BOPE (for Batalhão de Operações Policiais Especiais), it’s like if SWAT were officially supposed to be a hit squad—anyway, wouldn’t it just be so sad to see Moura have to give in and be a BOPE officer forever. Because he wants out, but he couldn’t leave until they take out one last drug dealer (Fábio Lago), even if it costs him his marriage to Maria Ribeiro. Once he gets Lago, Ribeiro will take him back. We don’t know Ribeiro will take him back because she leaves his ass after he sticks his finger in her face and screams at her about being the boss of the house. But, in his narration, Moura seems sure. Because in his narration, Moura sounds like a sociopath, which actually sets him apart from the rest of the BOPE officers, who have maybe one scene with any personality and the rest of the time are just action figures.

Action figures without personality is better than the regular cops, who are either entirely corrupt or just plain psychopaths. You have to be more restrained to be a BOPE, so they can only take the sociopaths.

The movie’s actually the story of best friends, roomies, and rookie cops André Ramiro and Caio Junqueira, who are finding out just how corrupt things are with their fellow brothers in blue. Squad’s at its best when Junqueira’s got his whole odyssey through the cops’ corruption racket, how they’ve split up the city into protection zones and squabble with one another to extort the most money. It’s fascinating and beautifully paced. It helps Junqueira’s guide is dirty cop Milhem Cortaz; Cortaz is great during this part of the film. He falls apart later, when he, Junqueira, and Ramiro end up at the boot camp. The boot camp sequence, with Moura’s omnipresent narration, is… troubling. It’s where the film gradually forgets dehumanized fascist stormtroopers are bad and instead, with the narrator guiding the way, decides maybe they’re really cool. Especially when they’re breaking in the newbies.

Because it turns out the only solution to Rio’s crime problem is these BOPE soldiers. The criminals are militarized and every single one of the ones Moura tortures turns out to be lying to the cops, so you know, it’s the poors in the slums too. The corrupt cops you occasionally get to kill when they’re taking payoffs. The smooth-talking, sexy liberals are a big problem—Ramiro’s got an exhausting subplot about law school and liberal rich girl (Fernanda Machado) who runs an NGO in the slums to help the youths at least stay in school-they’re going to try to seduce you away from the real problem.

And what’s the real problem? Elite Squad isn’t one of those “asks tough questions” pro-fascist stormtrooper movies. It’s not one of those “doesn’t ask tough questions” ones either. It just kind of shrugs. It’s not even committed enough to do the “cops as a gang” thing.

Now, as it turns out, some of that lack of commitment to anything might have to do with co-writer Bráulio Mantovani and director Padilha deciding in post to make the movie about Moura and having him record the omnipresent narration and make some other cuts. I mean, it probably helps a lot—without Moura narrating Junqueira and Ramiro’s stories those portions of the film would be rather rough. Ramiro’s boring (though Machado’s good). Junqueira’s just an unpleasant prick. So even though Moura’s actual omnipresent, past-tense narration is really dumb—it occasionally drops in statements like, “So and so later told me,” and it’s like, sure, Jan—it’s a lot better than the thought of Ramiro and Junqueira unaccompanied.

Good direction from Padilha, great editing from Daniel Rezende, great photography from Lula Carvalho. If something goes wrong with either, it’s because of something Padilha’s doing, not Rezende’s cuts or Carvalho’s lights.

Elite Squad is kind of like a grim and gritty G.I. Joe toy commercial going off the rails when it realizes how messed up to be a fascist stormtrooper, but then somehow goes even more off the rails when it decides the coolness of being a fascist stormtrooper is better, actually.

The best performances are Cortaz, Lago, Machado, and Ribeiro (which is something because Ribeiro’s got a crap part). Ramiro’s less unlikable than Junqueira, but Junqueira’s probably better. Moura’s… fine. His narration performance isn’t great or good or even as fine as his onscreen one. If it were… might be better, might not matter. Padilha and Mantovani seemed to think it made the film better. No reason to assume they were wrong.

Just doesn’t make it good. Elite Squad’s a capable production team in search of a better project… with a better cast.

1.5/4★½

CREDITS

Directed by José Padilha; screenplay by Bráulio Mantovani, Padilha, and Rodrigo Pimentel, based on the book by André Batista, Pimentel, and Luiz Eduardo Soares; director of photography, Lula Carvalho; edited by Daniel Rezende; music by Pedro Bromfman; production designer, Tulé Peak; costume designer, Cláudia Kopke; produced by Padilha and Marcos Prado; released by Universal Pictures.

Starring Wagner Moura (Capitão Nascimento), André Ramiro (Aspirante Matias), Caio Junqueira (Neto), Milhem Cortaz (Capitão Fábio), Fernanda Machado (Maria), Maria Ribeiro (Rosane), and Fábio Lago (‘Baiano’).


Train to Busan (2016, Yeon Sang-ho)

The middle of Train to Busan is excellent. The first act is iffy, the ending is forced, but the middle is where the film excels. It’s where director Yeon just gets to do action, not getting slowed down with the humanity of it all (which he’s uneven on), and just executes these breathtaking action suspense sequences. Not just Yeon, editor Yang Jin-mo, photographer Lee Hyung-deok, composer Jang Young-gyu—and of course the actors. During the action suspense stuff, everyone does really well. Even lead Gong Yoo is good during these sequences and doesn’t have the overwhelmed look he gets the rest of the movie. Gong’s the only character with a real character arc—he goes from being a selfish hedge fund manager and bad dad to a hero in the fight against a zombie horde; he even becomes a better dad and reals everything he’s been missing in daughter Kim Su-an’s life. It’s ought to be emotionally devastating.

But Gong can’t do it. Being fair, it’s not like he gets any help from Yeon on it either, who doesn’t do a good job with directing the character stuff. Outside the action sequences, Yeon’s best directing is all on Ma Dong-seok and Jung Yu-mi, who play an expecting married couple caught up in the afore implied zombie apocalypse. Worse, Yeon’s adequate directing on Kim—as she experiences having this bad dad—falls apart as the film progresses. It’s like Yeon can’t pretend Busan’s about Gong and Kim patching things up thanks to a crisis situation and just sleepwalks the film through the series where they act like it’s working. Maybe it’s just a bad combination; the way Yeon directs the actors, the script, Gong’s flimsy performance. Because a lot of things do come together just right in other ways during Busan. Ma and Jung are wonderful. They’re both excellent—he’s a loving tough guy and she’s, well, okay, she’s just the loving tough guy’s pregnant wife, but she’s really good. And Ma’s able to carry the film when Gong can’t and the film acknowledges it, Gong acknowledges it. Yeon just doesn’t use it to further anything along. Top-billed Gong goes into the third act a better person but a thinner character; everyone else has more depth than him, with the possible exception of daughter Kim, just because she’s a plot device to keep him moving through the picture. Not in a craven way, just a very pragmatic one. Gong and Kim might be the A plot in the film, but all the other plots are more interesting, which becomes real obvious in the third act.

First there’s teen paramours Sohee and Choi Woo-sik, who barely get introduced during the film’s rapid-free introduction of the disaster movie cast—I mean, it’s zombies on a bullet train—have a little do at the beginning of the second act, but then get this layered C plot leading up to a heart-wrenching, loving conclusion. Very nice work from Choi and Sohee and from Yeon. He takes their C plot seriously. He also takes the out of nowhere and completely awesome conductor turns action hero subplot seriously. Jeong Seok-yong is fantastic in that part. Total surprise, but great pay-offs.

The supporting characters’ arcs always pay off (save businessman worm villain Kim Eui-sung’s arc, which goes on too long and gets too important) and always a with a little more enthusiasm than Gong and Kim get. Their family drama is basically red herring and not particularly tasty red herring because Gong’s so wanting at the dad stuff.

When Yeon makes it work—like with Gong, Ma, and Choi unintentionally becoming three musketeers and having to save people and get past zombies on the train and figure out how not to get bit doing it… great stuff. Great chemistry between the actors. It’s not just smooth, it’s easy. It feels like Yeon’s found the film’s vibe and he couldn’t possibility screw it up. He burns through all that newfound goodwill slow then fast; when he hits the third act, it’s a bunch of wide swings. They’d be fine, if they could just hit anything.

Train to Busan probably ends on its lowest point. It’s not bad, it’s got some strong performances, some great special effects—the “choreography” on the running, scary but silly zombies, is breathtaking—but Busan’s got problems pulling into the proverbial station. The third act’s just way too pat.

1.5/4★½

CREDITS

Directed by Yeon Sang-ho; written by Park Joo-suk; director of photography, Lee Hyung-deok; edited by Yang Jin-mo; music by Jang Young-gyu; production designer, Lee Mok-won; costume designers, Gweon Yu-jin and Im Seung-hee; produced by Lee Dong-ha; released by Next World Entertainment.

Starring Gong Yoo (Seok-woo), Ma Dong-seok (Sang-hwa), Choi Woo-sik (Yong-guk), Kim Su-an (Soo-an), Jung Yu-mi (Seong-kyeong), Sohee (Jin-hee), Kim Eui-sung (Yon-suk), Ye Soo-jung (In-gil), Park Myung-shin (Jong-gil), Choi Gwi-hwa (Homeless Man), Jeong Seok-yong (Captain of KTX), and Lee Joo-sil (Seok-woo’s Mother).