In theaters: The Fast and Furious franchise is coming to an "end", in quotation marks because Fast X is the finale, Part 1 of 3. It DOES feel a lot like Avengers: Infinity War/Endgame, in that the movies now have an enormous amount of starring characters that are catered to while still adding more. Endgame, but the villain is the Joker. No really. Jason Mamoa is flamboyant, does the "choose between two evils" thing from The Dark Knight, tapes up dead bodies in a grin, and drives a purple car. Well... damn sight better Joker than we've seen since TDK. Otherwise, it's the same crazy car action we've gotten used to, shot while physics were out to lunch. It's amusing. The connective tissue isn't particularly strong, however, dialog never having been on of F&F's strengths (or delivery of such, for that matter, you can really tell that Statham is a notch above as an actor, because he can sell what many can't). Good finale vibes with characters potentially not surviving, and lots of call backs to previous films (I don't mean all the recaps, those are rubbish), but as it doesn't get to the finish line, it's not one of the better instalments.
At home: It's about family! Well, yes, but I wouldn't call Fast & Feel Love a Thai Fast & Furious parody despite its title and poster (indeed, that's not really what the title is in Thai, more like "Brutally fast... as if angry at you", like life after you get out of school). It's really more about doing something with your life and ticking clocks. Kao is good at one thing, competitive cup stacking, and an online international competition could be his ticket out of a meaningless life. His girlfriend Jay, whose own talent is kindness, has been making everything perfect for him, until she starts to hear her own clock... a biological one. F&FL is a comedy that does fool around with meta jokes, but the humor doesn't smother the film's attempts at emotional dramatic elements and therefore succeeds as a sweet relationship story where no one wants to walk away angry, if they are to walk away. The two leads are very charming, but also well supported by other characters, including some smaller kids (cup stacking is ageless and genderless, as they say). A most unusual "sports" movie, and well worth discovering.
I have not seen Outrage nor Beyond Outrage, but I understand that Takeshi Kitano's Outrage Coda is the last in a trilogy that stars the director (Violent Cop, Hana-Bi) as Otomo, a cold no-nonsense yakuza enforcer. But while Otomo does become a kind of spirit of vengeance by the end of this "coda", there are many more characters to consider and who take the stage. This is essentially an exploration of the yakuza code and its politics. Convoluted, though not so much that it can't be followed, we see how one man's misbehavior requires negotiated amends - as standard - but is seen by many in the organization as an opportunity to shake things up and move up in the world. If the meticulous and code-bound Otomo will only let them. Filled with double and triple-crosses, Outrage Coda would probably be more deeply felt by those who enjoyed the first two films, but still works for those who haven't (in spite of the title, I didn't realize until after myself).
Made before Seijun Suzuki exploded into beautiful strangeness, The Man with a Shotgun is still a fun western set in contemporary Japan, where a gunslinger might show up at a remote mill staffed by fugitive outlaws who hang out at a saloon, and become the town's sheriff after the actual one gets knocked upside the head. Oh, and of course our Man with No Name (Ryoji, yes, alright, he has a name) is out for personal revenge, but he's keeping his cards close to the vest. Hideaki Nitani (a Suzuki regular) is cool as ice in the lead role, and only breaks "character" when confronted with the people he's really after, and even then, he regains his composure in the way only the most badass movie heroes can. Interestingly, despite the revenge element, the film does have a moral opinion on the subject, often represented by the affecting Izumi Ashikawa whose sad eyes draw you into the drama. It may be a relatively early effort before Suzuki became SUZUKI, but it's still expertly shot, smart and clever.
Though the formula is similar to his Mad Detective - an impaired former police detective helps a rookie cop on a case - Blind Detective goes for comedy rather than drama, and is often quite loopy. Andy Lau is paired up with Sammi Cheng in these respective roles (a combination To has often used in his romcoms, which this also dips into). He's blind, but he has the ability to see crimes by putting himself in the head of the people involved - again, very Mad Detective - though it feels a lot like a parody of that previous film and a take-down of what actors call "the Method". I'm into it. So he's a Daredevil sort of blind, but when it comes to affairs of the heart, he's as blind as we are, leading to amusing misunderstandings. Cheng plays a hapless junior detective looking for a childhood friend she abandoned and who then disappeared, so she feels responsible. What unfolds is a series of cold case solutions, crazy mentoring, and well-tuned screwball romance. Not upper-tier Johnnie To, but it's a lot of fun anyway.
Here's hoping 2017's Manhunt doesn't end up being John Woo's last film. It's not that it's bad, exactly, but it often feels like a parody (or A.I. representation) of his work, with unmotivated fades and over/under-cranking, doves aplenty, and even a weird name-drop of one of his better films at one point (it's rather silly). Set in Japan using stars from across Asia, it unfortunately forces its stars to drop in English to resolved what are presumably language barriers, but makes much of the dialog sound stilted as a result. And maybe the HD look isn't doing him any favors - his best films have more grit than this. Woo's usual energy is still in this story of a lawyer framed for murder by a pharmaceutical conspiracy and a cop who tries to catch him even if he's convinced he didn't do it, and there are some good moments. However, like its generic title, Manhunt is too much of a Greatest Hits to really stick in one's mind for long.
As a Godzilla fan, I do try to see every Godzilla film, even those that aren't canon (like Godzilla vs. Bambi), so I was stoked to find Kaiju Bunraku, a short film that uses Japanese bunraku puppetry to tell the story of a couple whose lives keep being interrupted by kaiju attacks. And it IS Godzilla, because that scream can't be mistaken. They soon start talking about other Toho monsters, and one even puts in an appearance, so they really don't need to name-drop the big GZ (who can't be mentioned possibly for rights reasons, I don't know). There are some interesting things here, name that "Husband" refuses to leave his artwork behind when the attacks occur, and of course, the artistry involved, but ultimately, it's all a bit absurd to combine traditional story-telling methods with radioactive monsters from film. The joke wears thin if it IS a joke, and the existentialism is undermined by the pop culture. But hey, Godzilla material I (you?) didn't know about!
There are people who tip, people who get tips, and then people below decks who never get a tip. Privilege is an ongoing concern in today's cinema, and I'm a little over it even if these movies are preaching to the converted (or perhaps BECAUSE they are). Some are quite fun, but they're too often blunt instruments, over-obvious in their satire. And so it is with Triangle of Sadness, which works better for me on thematics than it does that satire. The privileged in the movie like to say they want equality, but their faux-hippie, faux-feminist, faux-socialist values crumble when push comes to shove. So early scenes between the two models, where the man tries to be all modern, are supported by other moments where power dynamics are flipped, or the film presents us with equalizers like sickness, body fluids, hunger and yes, love. It's in this playfulness that I find myself in this, because making neoliberals suffer indignities is just rote at this point. And there's always going to be at least one HUGE STAR on screen to make these films hypocritical, so... More interesting here is how people accept roles, whether gender or class, when they don't have to. Now that's some Baby Buster dogma I subscribe to.
If I were to program a pervert's cyber-thriller double feature, I'd undoubtedly match Verhoeven's Elle with Olivier Assayas' Demonlover. That sentence alone might be enough for you to press the Play or Eject button depending. Connie Nielsen is a hard sexy industrial spy working inside a French media company, manipulating a deal between it, a Japanese porn animation studio - I probably saw more hentai in the first act of this than I have in my entire life - and an American distributor. Things to escalate, not only in terms of moral ambivalence, but violence, as well as just how fantasy pornography is dished out. The third act kind of loses the plot as things get more extreme and therefore more absurd, almost disjointed. At this juncture, I wondered how the movie could possibly end on a satisfying note. It does, but that really depends on how satisfying one thinks cynicism is. Bit too dark and soulless for me, though I respect how ahead of its time this was for 2002. If you filed off the number and told me it was shot in 2023, I would have believed you (give or take actors' ages).
Books: Shannon Appelcline's third volume of Designers & Dragons covers the history of role-playing game publishers that started their output in the 90s, and therefore has to give up a sixth of the book each to White Wolf and Wizards of the Coast, which I think you'll agree is perfectly appropriate. It was the decade of the splatbook and of experimenting with storytelling devices, taking us away from the crunchier, more gamist perspectives of the previous two decades. But another trend is that these companies are more often bought and sold, with product lines starting in one place, ending up in another, etc. It happened to older companies, sure, but it makes sense that those born in the 90s had more of a struggle surviving the booms and busts the market threw at them, specifically CCGs and the d20 explosion (oh Wizards, those are both your fault, aren't they?). And RPG publishers were out of the basement by this time, so it may just be that business deals are just more a part of the narrative than when they were passion projects piloted by enthusiasts. Whatever the case may be, it makes this decade a story of ups and downs for even the most successful lines, and therefore a pretty entertaining read. And if a book makes me want to check out games I missed back in the day, that can't be a bad thing...