As you might’ve guessed by now, I’m a bit of a sucker for cheesy Japanese sci-fi movies from the late ’80s and early ’90s (e.g., Mechanical Violator Hakaider, Zeiram). Gunhed is one such movie that I’ve been wanting to see for almost thirty years now, ever since I stumbled across the manga back in high school. (It’s funny how such things can remain lodged in your subconscious for decades.) Of course, I wasn’t expecting it to be good when I finally did see it. I mainly wanted to see Gunhed for its visual effects, model work, and cyberpunk designs — which are pretty dated but also possess a certain charm when compared to today’s CGI fests. But Gunhed also possesses an overly convoluted plot about bandits trying to scavenge technology on a forbidden industrial island that cribs an awful lot from James Cameron. What’s more, the editing is often to the point of incoherence (which sadly, obscures the giant mecha combat that’s a main selling point for a film like this) and it has an annoying kid character (one of my biggest movie pet peeves).
My Cultural Diet
Quick reviews of movies, TV shows, books, restaurants, etc. My own private Goodreads, Letterboxd, and Yelp all rolled into one (more info here). Ratings are 100% subjective, non-scientific, and subject to change. May contain affiliate links.
- My family watched this Disney+ original film on a whim and suffice to say, I was very pleasantly surprised. On its surface, Crater is a sci-fi coming-of-age story about a group of precocious teens who go on one last hurrah — a lunar roadtrip to visit a distant crater — before one of their number is sent off to another planet. And if that’s all that Crater was, it’d be fine enough… probably. But mix in some resonant themes about grief and family trauma; some subtext about greed and worker exploitation; an appropriately bittersweet ending; and finally, uniformly strong performances from its young cast. Suddenly, Crater becomes something quite a bit more than it might seem at first glance. You’ll have to overlook some flawed science (e.g., the variable gravity levels) and some clunky editing, but if you can do that, you might just be as pleasantly surprised as I was.
The Super Mario Bros. MovieThis was a real “meh” movie for me. Some of the CGI visuals were impressive and the voice acting was enjoyable enough. (Nobody else but Jack Black could be Bowser, and after seeing the hate that Chris Pratt received, I though his Mario was fine.) But overall, The Super Mario Bros. Movie left me feeling, well, meh. I caught many of the references — e.g., the callbacks to Koji Kondo’s classic soundtrack, Jumpman, Diddy Kong — but that’s really all it was, a series of references. There was nothing bad about the movie, per se, but it felt very safe and by-the-numbers, as if its only concern was checking everything on the “Fans Will Be Pissed Off If They Don’t See This” checklist, and nothing else. (Compare that to the first Sonic the Hedgehog movie, which possessed an irreverent zaniness that made it better than it honestly had any right to be.)
- Sure, Nobody is filled with over-the-top action sequences, including a long, violent standoff in a machine shop, and a dark sense of humor. But we’ve seen all that before. Nobody really only succeeds because of one thing: Bob Odenkirk’s performance. Odenkirk is perfect as a sadsack middle-aged suburbanite named Hutch who clearly has some repressed issues. But Nobody wisely takes its time, settling us into the doldrums and dreary rhythms of Hutch’s life, be it forgetting to take out the garbage every week or his family’s constant looks of disappointment. Thus, when the truth is inevitably revealed — that Hutch used to be an elite government assassin who gave it all up for the domestic life, and now must “reawaken” those deadly skills to defend his family from Russian gangsters — it’s as much a catharsis for the audience as it is for Hutch. I certainly didn’t have Bob Odenkirk on my “action star” bingo card, but that incongruity only makes the film more fun and interesting, especially in the first big fight scene where Hutch takes on a bunch of punks on a bus. A sequel’s been announced, but I’m not sure how enjoyable it will be given that we now know Hutch’s big secret.
- 2 out of 5 stars
The Osterman WeekendI went into this film anticipating a paranoid thriller along the same lines as The Parallax View or Three Days of the Condor. What I got was a muddled mess made all the more disappointing by the fact that it was directed by Sam Peckinpah (his final film, in fact), stars Rutger Hauer and John Hurt, and has a Lalo Schifrin score. The Osterman Weekend works really hard to make you think that it’s smarter than it actually is, but its tangle of storylines (which include Russian secret agents, government corruption, and fears about surveillance and media manipulation) combined with jumbled editing and unlikable characters will just leave you scratching your head the entire time. A director’s cut was released in 2022 — the 1983 theatrical release was edited by the producers themselves after they fired Peckinpah — but the film is so random and slapdash that I have a hard believing that a director’s cut would be any more enjoyable or insightful.
- I loved Versus when I first saw it back in the early ’00s — its zombie/martial arts/gangster storyline had “cult hit” written all over it — but it’d been at least 15 years since my last viewing. Watching it now, the film’s flaws are more apparent. Specifically, Ryûhei Kitamura’s debut feature is about 30 minutes too long, what with all of the whip pans, dolly zooms, slow-motion, and shaky cam. And parts that I once found hilarious are not quite so much anymore. Still, its blend of Sam Raimi-influenced camerawork, Matrix-esque action, zombie gore, and yakuza flair is entertaining and even inspiring at times. Versus was reportedly shot for $10,000, which makes what you actually see all the more impressive. Kitamura and his cast and crew fully embraced their limitations, which forced them to get clever with, well, everything you see, from the practical effects and martial arts choreography to the film’s depiction of the supernatural through clever cinematography. In other words, Versus is proof that when it comes to making memorable films, imagination and creativity can trump a big budget. (Read my review)
- Had I seen Willow when I was twelve, I’m sure it would’ve become one of my favorite films right alongside Flight of the Navigator. Unlike my wife, however, I wasn’t allowed to see Willow as a child, so I have zero nostalgic attachments to this classic ’80s fantasy film from Ron Howard and George Lucas. (By contrast, I have all the nostalgic attachments for Flight of the Navigator.) Which was not to Willow’s advantage. It’s not without its charms — e.g., Warwick Davis’ earnest performance, the Welsh and New Zealand scenery, some of the vintage effects (it was refreshing to see a CGI-less fantasy film) — but overall, Willow is a slog without nostalgia’s rose-colored glasses. Val Kilmer’s clownish-yet-dashing swordsman is far more clownish than dashing (which makes both his battle prowess and his eventual romance with the villain’s warrior daughter all the more eyeroll-inducing) and the less said about Kevin Pollak and Rick Overton’s annoying brownie duo, the better. On a sidenote, I had little interest in watching Disney+‘s Willow series, and now I have zero interest.
Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among ThievesI’m honestly bummed I didn’t like this more than I actually did. I loved the trailers, which felt like they got the tone of D&D just right, i.e., that it’s at its best when it’s crazy, chaotic, and just plain madcap fun. As such, I think I was hoping for more hijinks. The film works best when it’s at its goofiest, whether it’s our heroes attempting a harebrained magic-enhanced heist, screwing up the “Speak with Dead” spell, or stupidly setting off a trap. (And unfortunately, many of those moments are in the film’s trailers). The movie’s not so good when it aims for an epic fantasy adventure vibe à la the Lord of the Rings movies replete with sweeping landscape shots and the requisite soaring soundtrack. For what it’s worth, my 13-year-old absolutely loved it, and said it’s one of his top ten favorite movies of all time, so I suspect we’ll be watching it again — and the film is so earnestly good-natured that I’m willing to give it another shot.
Police Story 3: SupercopSupercop has long been one of my favorite Jackie Chan movies. This time around, I watched the original 1992 Hong Kong cut, which is darker and grimmer than the Dimension Films version that was released in American theaters in 1996. Chan’s trademark brand of action-comedy is present but less pronounced than, say, Rumble in the Bronx, Mr. Nice Guy, or Who Am I?. At times, it almost feels like Chan and director Stanley Tong were trying to make a hard-boiled crime film. I know this will seem blasphemous to some, but I think I might prefer Dimension Films’ more streamlined cut (though I can do without Tom Jones singing “Kung Fu Fighting”). The stunts are outstanding, of course, be it Chan dangling from a helicopter high above Kuala Lumpur or Michelle Yeoh — who more than holds her own with Chan — jumping onto a moving train whilst riding a motorcycle. (Which is even more impressive given that she’d never ridden a motorcycle before filming the movie.) On a side note, 88 Films’ 4K release is absolutely packed with special features that are must-have for any Jackie Chan devotee.
Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal SkullI know this was directed by Steven Spielberg, that George Lucas worked on its story, and that it stars Harrison Ford, Cate Blanchett, and Shia LaBeouf. But Kingdom of the Crystal Skull feels less like a real Indiana Jones movie, and more like a decent-budget fan film that has all of the elements, but is nevertheless missing that essential spark that makes an Indiana Jones film so special. Maybe it’s the sci-fi aspects, or the decision to swap out Nazis for Communists, or the choice to use some surprisingly dodgy CGI instead of practical effects. In any case, nothing in this film feels as visceral as the face melting in Raiders or the mine cart chase in Temple of Doom, and I miss Indy’s wrestling with skepticism and belief when confronted with holy relics like the Grail. I actually do like the basic storyline of tracking down ancient aliens and a mythical city in the Amazon jungle. Throw in some stuff about Area 51 and Cold War-era psychic research, and I’m even more intrigued. Just not in an Indiana Jones movie.
Indiana Jones and the Last CrusadeRaiders of the Lost Ark is an action classic, and for good reason. But The Last Crusade is the Indiana Jones movie that I’ve seen the most, and if I’m honest, I might even enjoy it more than Raiders. Much of that’s due to the casting of Sean Connery as Indy’s father, and the interplay between him, Harrison Ford, Denholm Elliott, and John Rhys-Davies is consistently delightful. (Who knew Sean Connery was this funny?) The movie’s opening scene, with River Phoenix as a determined young Indy on his very first adventure, is fun (and thanks to the Utah backdrop, beautiful to watch). And of course, it’s always great to watch Indy slug it out with the Nazis. The lengthy tank battle never gets old or boring, and features the sort of thrilling stunts that you rarely see in our modern age of CGI.
John Wick: Chapter 4I criticized the third John Wick movie for being too much of a good thing. John Wick: Chapter 4 pushes so far past the notion of “too much” as to render it pointless. Everything’s bigger here, as evidenced by the nearly 3-hour runtime (trimmed down from nearly four hours). The movie fully diverges from reality until you feel like you’re glimpsing an alternate universe. Which raises numerous questions. In a world apparently governed by an all-powerful crime syndicate that enjoys rarefied privilege and is obsessed with ritual and tradition, how do politics function? Religion? Law enforcement? (Come to think of it, Wick’s interaction with Jimmy the Cop in the first movie suddenly makes more sense now.) It’s an exhausting movie, but also a frequently beautiful one, such as when Wick is bathed in vibrant color in Osaka, Japan or strides into the gorgeously candlelit Saint-Eustache cathedral. (Cinematographer Dan Laustsen is the film’s MVP.) And of course, it’s a blast to see Keanu Reeves in motion, whether he’s wielding nunchaku, blasting away goons in an intricate overhead tracking shot, or sharing the screen with legends like Donnie Yen and Hiroyuki Sanada.
John Wick: Chapter 3 – ParabellumThe second John Wick movie built upon the first one by bringing our titular hero into conflict with the High Table, a global group of crime lords. The third John Wick dives more deeply into this, with Wick calling in favors and traveling around the world in search of the mysterious man who rules over the High Table. But the lore gets a bit too convoluted to be believable. (Believable, at least, for a movie in which nobody bats an eye at immaculately dressed people killing other immaculately dressed people out in the open.) The same is true of the movie’s numerous and intricately choreographed fight scenes. As fun as it is to see Keanu Reeves square off against the likes of Mark Dacascos, Cecep Arif Rahman, Yayan Ruhian, and Roger Yuan, the fight scenes are a great example of “too much of a good thing.”
John Wick: Chapter 2The first John Wick movie is a fairly straightforward affair: Russian gangsters kill a man’s puppy, man goes on a violent rampage of revenge against said gangsters, the end. The second John Wick movie complicates things by delving more into the lore of the Wickaverse when our favorite puppy avenger is compelled to undertake a deadly assignment now that he’s (un)officially out of retirement. This eventually brings him into conflict with the High Table, the secretive organization that oversees John Wick’s shadowy world. For the most part, this sudden expansion of Wick’s world works. I’m always a sucker for lore, especially when that lore is accompanied by lots of stylishly brutal fights set in exotic locations (like the catacombs under Rome). It’s like James Bond and SPECTRE, and takes the film into a quasi-fantastical realm.
- After we finished John Wick, my son asked if it had won any Oscars. He was pretty incredulous when I said “No,” and I can’t really blame him. The first John Wick movie takes a really silly-on-paper premise — a former assassin comes out of retirement to avenge the dog that his dead wife gave him — and invests it with all possible seriousness. And style. And guns. Lots of guns. The Viggo Tarasov character is particularly interesting. He knows his son messed up and that nothing can be done to save him, but he sets out to stop Wick, anyway, because he’s a father as well as a mob boss. There’s a sense of melancholy and tragic inevitability about John Wick that elevates it more than you’d think. And of course, Keanu Reeves looks cooler than cool when he’s dispatching nameless goons in a well-tailored suit.
Indiana Jones and the Temple of DoomThe mine cart chase sequence is an action movie classic and Ke Huy Quan is a delight as the plucky, resourceful Short Round. Unfortunately, watching Temple of Doom so soon after the near-perfect Raiders of the Lost Ark mainly reveals its weaknesses. Namely, Temple feels slapped together, with Indy and his companions finding themselves in remote India (after an assassination attempt goes awry) and tasked with retrieving a sacred stone from an evil cult. Raiders certainly had its fair share of ickiness but Temple feels unnecessarily grim and its Orientalism (e.g., the monkey brains scene) is rather off-putting nowadays. That, and Willie Scott is no Marion Ravenwood. Kate Capshaw and Harrison Ford have very little chemistry, which makes their interactions consistently annoying.
- I liked this one better than the original Zeiram. It still has all of the original’s flaws — namely, annoying hijinks from the heroine’s bumbling companions. And even worse, she has a third bumbling companion this time around. But there were several moments that had me cackling with glee (such as when our heroine, an alien bounty hunter named Iria, roundhouse kicks a laser blast into a building behind her, which promptly explodes). As with the original movie, I’d love to see a more serious take on Zeiram minus the goofy humor that, instead, focuses on the body horror, monster designs, and cool alien gadgets.
Magnificent WarriorsI started watching this thinking it was 1986’s Royal Warriors, a “modern” police action film that also stars Michelle Yeoh and was also directed by David Chung. But here, Yeoh plays a pilot and smuggler in 1930s-era China who gets caught up in the anti-Japanese resistance. Action-wise, this has some pretty impressive sequences that really allow Yeoh to show off, especially with the rope dart. However, the film’s hampered by an uneven tone. One minute, it seems to want to be a serious, patriotic, even epic war film. The next, it’s an Indiana Jones-esque adventure film or a broad slapstick comedy involving mistaken identities and corny Richard Ng hijinks. As a result, it ends up being something of a mess.
- 4.5 out of 5 stars
Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost ArkThere’s not a lot to be said about Raiders of the Lost Ark that hasn’t been said before, and by people a lot smarter than me. The film is a timeless action-adventure classic, and for very good reason. One thing I did pay more attention to during this viewing was the film’s directing and cinematography, be it the use of extreme focus or shadows to heighten tension and make certain scenes even more intense and epic. Also, the editing and pacing is immaculate; the film’s almost two hours long and it doesn’t contain a single wasted moment.
- I was inspired to re-watch RRR after “Naatu Naatu” won the Oscar for “Best Original Song” (and deservedly so). This time, however, I watched it with my wife and some of our kids — and we all loved it. Indeed, I think I liked RRR a little bit more the second time around because I watched it with others. Some movies are simply meant to be enjoyed with a crowd, and RRR is a perfect example of that. Much of my enjoyment came from seeing my family’s joyous (or incredulous) reactions to Raju and Bheem’s latest exploit — e.g., saving a kid from a fiery train wreck, wooing a pretty girl, taking on a British army whilst the disabled Raju is sitting on Bheem’s shoulders — and thinking to myself, “Just wait, you ain’t seen nothin’ yet.” RRR is pure, unadulterated entertainment spectacle: the action scenes are totally ridiculous in the best way possible, the melodrama is piled on miles thick, the bromance is the greatest in cinematic history, and of course, “Naatu Naatu” is an absolute banger.