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Classic Japanese TV series far better than the later Power Rangers, 15 September 2010

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

A Japanese superhero program that ran for 26 episodes from 1972-73. Similar to ULTRAMAN, each episode featured a guest giant monster that must be defeated by the heroic Iron King. Sounds tiresome, but the format is redeemed in the details: The hero, Gentaro Shizuka (Shoji Ishibashi) does not become the giant Iron King, instead, his goofy sidekick Goro Kirishima (Mitsuo Hamada) does. And not only that, Iron King doesn't defeat the giant monster all by himself: usually Gentaro must come along, and using only his "Iron Belt", which transforms into a very long whip or a sword, and a handful of grenades, Gentaro must finish off the monster himself, in action set-pieces that defy all known laws of physics and have terrible problems with scale. But the leads are such fun that it is hard not to be swept along with the show.

The 26 episode series is basically broken into three stories, or three groups of villains that Gentaro and Goro must face. First up is the Shiranui Clan, who control giant robots and want to conquer Japane as "revenge against the Yamato Clan", to whom they feel a "2,000 year old hatred." Heady stuff for a kids show, the bad guys are basically terrorists, and in some episodes a relative of one of the villains tries to plead for them to leave the evil group, and come back to their family, with predictably dire consequences.

The second batch of villains is perhaps a bit less serious, the Phantom Militia, who wear primary-colored outfits topped by white Bedouin head scarves. They are still mad terrorists, though. They control a group of not just robots but monster-robots, making the giant battles a whole lot more interesting. The third and final batch of bad guys are the Titanians, a group of aliens from outer space who dress like Zorro and wear white face masks. Come to think of it, a bit of V FOR VENDETTA, really. According to the comprehensive and interesting liner notes included in the DVD set, compiled by the ever-reliable and authoritative August Ragone, the show switched to aliens because the kiddies were getting a bit confused about the villains being altogether too human. Not sure if that helps, though, because the aliens immediately start "body-jacking" innocent villagers, women, and children, and fighting Gentaro and Goro while in those human forms.

Too bad that Japanese children's programming from the 70's is not exactly what you might call politically correct. Sometimes, Gentaro is a complete bastard. He ignores people in peril to focus on defeating the main villains, puts people in danger as bait to draw the bad guys in, and generally lacks compassion - maybe just outwardly, but still. In one episode, he kisses a nun just so she would leave them alone. Goro acts as his conscience, though, and the two strike a good balance.

Still, in an era when Sesame Street releases old episodes of its TV show but labels them inappropriate for kids today, and Whoopie Goldberg provides a disclaimer at the front of Looney Tunes boxed sets to warn that a few of the cartoons may have inappropriate stereotypes, a little more warning of the politically incorrect bits would have been nice. The worst moment was in episode 12, when Gentaro finally takes a little break from his adventures -- previously he and Goro were always out in the woods, camping, living off the land, and fighting the bad guys. He is depressed, and next thing you know he is sitting at a hotel bar swigging some booze and smoking up a storm. I could hear an audible gasp from the chair next to mine -- and the wheels turning, trying to reconcile the hero with this new vice. (At least, he doesn't start smoking again until episode 24). Parents watching with their kids who are not interested in promoting an interest in smoking might wish to skip those episodes. If you would rather avoid bad language, that's much harder, as outbursts of "Bastards!" and "Damn it!" are quite common, but I thought relatively harmless.

Parents may also want to be prepared for the introduction of the Titanians at the end of Episode 18. They say nothing, they just laugh, in their immobile white masks, then suddenly their shadows stretch out and grow into the sky. In other words -- pure nightmare candy. I still remember a dream I had when I was six years old about shadows very similar to those cast by the Titanians in that moment. Watch it early in the day, perhaps, or follow up right away with the next episode, which largely de-mystifies the Titanians and makes them just another bad guy group in need to of a good smack-down.

Despite these flaws, IRON KING is great fun and compares quite favorably with the classic original ULTRAMAN. In IRON KINGs favor, the two leads are really great, and I'm a sucker for regular human beings fighting against giant monsters, which I find much more interesting than the monster vs. robot wrestling matches almost every episode of every Japanese superhero series eventually devolves to. In ULTRAMANs favor, each episode has a unique self-contained story. I understand that IRON KING is more the norm in this respect, but I do find it a bit tedious when episode 1 features 10 bad guys, and the leader says, "Bad Guy #1, go!!!!", and next episode, they face #2, and so on through 10 episodes. Happily, the stories get increasingly complex in IRON KING as the series progresses.

1 out of 1 people found the following review useful:
Sharla Cheung Man in a rare starring role, 8 September 2010

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

I miss Sharla Cheung Man, heroine of early nineties Stephen Chow films and one of my (admittedly many) international cinema crushes. She still works, though regular Hong Kong moviegoers would hardly know it. So it is with some pleasure that I discovered here here, in a rare starring role. And darn it if ten years on she doesn't still look the same. Unfortunately, her role, as a needy girlfriend choosing between a handsome, going- somewhere guy and a young, goofy, fed-ex delivery boy (Patrick Tang), is uninspiring and a little shallow. She basically hurts her foot and sits around at home whining waiting to see who will pay more attention to her. I'll Pass. The second half of the movie is about a housewife (Elena Kong) afraid her husband is having an affair, and who begins one herself with her charming neighbor (Alfred Cheung). This second story is more interesting than the first, but neither warrant much attention. Next time I start pining for Cheung Man I'll just pop in a tape of ALL FOR THE WINNER (1990, Wong Jing).

0 out of 2 people found the following review useful:
Louis Koo's face turns redder than usual, 8 September 2010

If Louis Koo was on a mission to be the worst actor in Hong Kong, he could not have found a better picture to bring him such startling success. In this film, Koo tries to woo a Beijing theater student (Cherry Ying), but he suffers from memory loss, and he keeps forgetting who she is. A cute little CGI effect shows Louis Koo's face turning red from bottom to top like a thermometer before losing his memories. A bad choice of effect, really, since Koo is red-faced to begin with from his regular duels with tanning beds. This picture has nothing going for it. Cherrie Ying is forgettable, Louis Koo just plain bad. He desperately needs to stop making romantic comedies and restore what little remains of his credibility. If nothing else, WHY ME, SWEETIE? has left me longing for a mature romance that doesn't rely on cartoon gimmickry to hide its shallow insipidness. The search goes on. Meanwhile viewers who hanker for more tales revolving around fictional forms of amnesia can try the Drew Barrymore vehicle 50 FIRST DATES, which is at least more heartfelt than this production.

Moments of romance, adding up to nothing much, 29 August 2010

Regular TROUBLESOME NIGHT director Lam Wai-Yin steps up a notch with this romance about a young rich man (Ken Wong) who falls in love with a fishmonger (Kristy Yang) because she looks like his deceased fiancé. Sam Lee is the butcher who always loved her but whom she regards as a "brother," and Wayne Lai and Fannie Yuen are vendors at nearby stalls who have romantic entanglements of their own. Maria Cordero, Simon Loui, Emily Kwan, and Turbo Law round out the acting ensemble. The story is at its best when focusing on the daily lives of these working class people. Lam Wai-Yin shows his directorial ambition when he shoots a segment in which Kristy Yang goes to Central for a new job as if in homage to Woody Allen's MANHATTAN. Everyone puts in a good effort, but nevertheless the movie amounts to very little, and the constantly repeated love theme is painfully grating enough to test the patience of even the most romantic viewer.

1 out of 1 people found the following review useful:
Master Q is Loud and Annoying, 29 August 2010

The beloved character Master Q returns in a full length animated movie. Like many Hong Kong comedies, it's a creative pastiche of Hollywood ideas, including Ace Ventura: Pet Detective and the Matrix, complete with a "bullet time" parody. The story is about a latchkey kid and his annoying younger sister, who becomes withdrawn from the world and just plays video games all the time. They eventually get sucked in to a video game, and have to find their way out with the help of Master Q, Potato, Mr. Chun, and their dog. There are a few scenes that take place on Hong Kong streets and it is fun to see Hong Kong animated, but not as much fun as it was in last year's MCDULL movie. The movie is well animated, comparable to a middling Japanese effort, but the story is dull and there is more high-pitched whining and screaming than actual dialog in the film, making the ending a welcome relief. Chapman To provides the voice for Master Q, Eric Tsang the voice for Potato. To give you an idea of how annoyingly whiny the movie is, note that these two actors have the least annoying voices in the entire production.

1 out of 2 people found the following review useful:
Hong Kong rip off of THE QUIET FAMILY, 29 August 2010

When Japan remade the Korean black comedy THE QUIET FAMILY, about a family that opens an ill-fated inn at which all most of their guests end up dead, Takashi Miike directed and the result was the insane THE HAPPINESS OF THE KATAKURIS. When Hong Kong rips off THE QUIET FAMILY, the result is this boring, shot on video rehash that copies the original slavishly, adds nothing new, and at the same time manages to take away all the humor and drama that made the original the success that it was. Come to think of it, THE QUIET FAMILY was never my favorite movie to begin with. Watching a Z- grade copy of something you didn't even care for when it was an A is not exactly pleasant. Shing Fui On and Teresa Mak in the lead roles provide some respite, but they are inadequate by comparison to the Korean, and Japanese, actors in the same roles.

Like a Chick Tract put on film, 29 August 2010

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

Another shameless grab for your immortal soul by Media Evangelism, who brought us last year's Ultimate Intelligence. This time around a gambler strikes a deal with the Devil, becomes a billionaire, but then hits bottom, and after attempting suicide, sees the light. By the end, he is happily scrubbing the church's toilets and handing out tracts to passers- by. I wanted to completely hate this movie, but I couldn't, considering the performances are actually quite good, and I have something of a soft spot for Hong Kong gambling films. Waise Lee is the devil, scraping the bottom of the career barrel, backed up by some cheesy digital Satan effects for good measure. Shot on video.

Overly Melodramatic Triad picture fails to rekindle the spirit of Woo, 29 August 2010

When triad baddies kill their parents, the oldest brother gets his younger brother and sister out of the house and onto the street. They are eventually taken in by an orphanage, are adopted by different families, and grow up. Now the younger brother, adopted by a wealthy Shanghai family, is getting married to the girlfriend he met during his years abroad at university, and he wants his old siblings to be there with him. And so begins their quest to reunite after all these years, leading eventually to kidnapping and murder, while the older brother (grown up into Julian Cheung) does everything he can to keep his siblings alive, just like he did when they were little. A good action melodrama let down sometimes by going way over the top, a few too many pages taken from the "save my corneas for Jenny" school of scriptwriting.

2 out of 2 people found the following review useful:
Telling a story from the gun's point of view, 29 August 2010

The premise of RUNAWAY PISTOL -- an entire movie from the point of view of a gun, as it moves from owner to owner -- is high concept and one might think almost doomed to stupidity. Several American movies have already done similar things -- chance encounters changing perspective, or a dollar bill changing hands from one person to another. But a well written and inventive script manages to inject the film with life beyond just the sales pitch. The gun profoundly changes lives, but never in a way that is quite expected. The film drifts from the darkly serious, to the comic, to the bizarre, and back again. The action is occasionally seen in a gun POV shot, at other times we see what the gun owner fantasizes as real, still other times the real and the fantastic merge. The gun itself narrates the story. Lam Wah Chuen pushes the unpleasant metaphor of humans as fish throughout the picture, opening with a sadistic child putting fighting fish into a single tank and watching them kill each other senselessly. They don't know why they do this, it is simply in their nature. In the end, we long for redemption, but only the gun itself is able to deliver.

Gambling and Time Travel, 29 August 2010

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

Leave it to Hong Kong filmmakers to take a time travel premise and turn it into a gambling movie. Ekin Cheng is the gambler, and he has his eyes on taking the high rollers in Vegas. But things go wrong, and he ends up off a cliff -- but not before a mystic Indian talisman transports him, and the detective chasing him (Cecilia Cheung) back in time -- but only three days back, where they have to race to save lives, and of course fall in love. Bad jokes, bad English acting, and a silly time travel script that doesn't entirely add up, but what the heck, there is a lot of fun to be had along the way, and Ekin and Cecilia are entirely charming and can get you through the weak parts, and the Las Vegas desert setting adds some novelty into the production (for a Hong Kong film).

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