My Cultural Diet

Quick reviews of movies, TV shows, books, restaurants, etc., as I enjoy them. 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.

Wing Chun
Yuen Woo-ping’s Iron Monkey is one of my favorite kung fu films of all time, and in some ways, Wing Chun feels like its spiritual successor. It’s a good deal sillier, though, what with the gender-bending, mistaken identities, and sophomoric sexual comedy. That, and the fight choreography is more frenetic and wire-filled. The film’s sexual politics might be a bit uncouth by today’s standards, but Michelle Yeoh is an absolute queen even when she’s mistaken for a man by her childhood sweetheart (Donnie Yen, in a welcome comedic turn). And I do enjoy watching Norman Chu eat up the scenery like nobody’s business as the big bad.
Shaolin Soccer
This riveting documentary tells the inspiring story of a former monk who seeks to bring Shaolin kung fu into the modern era. To do so, he teams up with a disgraced soccer superstar and reunites with his former Shaolin brothers to blend kung fu and soccer. But will their skills be enough to defeat the Evil Team and the corrupt soccer officials? It’s probably been 15 years since my last viewing of Shaolin Soccer, but its story of underdogs, martial arts, mystical Shaolin powers, and soccer remains as entertaining and inspirational as ever. (Read my review)
Although I’ve seen plenty of clips over the years, I’m ashamed to admit that it wasn’t until 2023 that I finally watched the original Godzilla in its entirety. What struck me was how serious, melancholy, and even tragic the film is, with none of the (beloved) camp that has characterized the franchise. Yes, Godzilla is destroying Tokyo and terrifying the world, but only because of mankind’s actions. There are no villains in the film (except for maybe political bureaucracy, natch). Those who want to destroy Godzilla and those who want to study him both make compelling points, and as a result, the film’s inevitable ending is tinged with regret. The Godzilla franchise really did begin on a very strong note.
Roman Holiday
One of the great Hollywood classics. Audrey Hepburn (in her first major role) is absolutely luminous as Princess Ann and Gregory Peck is effortlessly charming as Joe Bradley. However, Eddie Albert almost steals the show as Joe’s photographer buddy. As for the Rome backdrop, it gives the film both authenticity and stunning scenery. I was struck by the film’s bittersweetness during this most recent viewing, as the young princess and opportunistic reporter alike come to realize the weight of duty and obligation. Hepburn and Peck were approached in the 1970s with doing a sequel, which probably would’ve been terrible. Roman Holiday works so well precisely because it ends on such a bittersweet and melancholy note.
Iria: Zeiram the Animation is one of my favorite anime OVAs of all time, so I was excited to finally see the live-action film that inspired it. Unfortunately, Zeiram didn’t meet expectations. It has all the makings of a cool sci-fi monster movie, from the creature and gadget designs to some icky body horror. The visual effects were cleverly done and there was even some martial arts action thrown in for good measure. But for whatever reason, a significant portion of the movie is spent following the bumbling exploits of two side characters. I assume they were intended as comedic relief, but they’re just annoying and end up overshadowing Yūko Moriyama’s capable heroine.
Mechanical Violator Hakaider
Mechanical Violator Hakaider gets a star for its title alone. And I’ll give it another star for its post-apocalyptic meets campy, glam rock aesthetic. On the one hand, you’ve got an implacable cyborg fighting his way through a seemingly perfect (read: dystopic) society. On the other hand, the main villain wears a bird’s skeleton draped over his shoulder and pontificates on the beauty of flowers. Also, so many feathers. But to be honest, I wish the movie had leaned harder into one aspect or the other: either embrace the grimness and nihilism, or embrace the camp. Some interesting visuals, to be sure, be it the mechanical designs or the massive religious ruins dotting the landscape, and Hakaider always looks cool on his motorcycle. As for the many fight scenes, if you’ve ever watched a Power Rangers episode, you know what to expect.
Blade of the 47 Ronin
Remember 2013’s 47 Ronin, starring Keanu Reeves? No? Well apparently, somebody thought it deserved a sequel, so here we are. Now, I think we can all agree that Mark Dacascos as a 21st century samurai warlord leading his clan against evil ninjas in, of all places, Budapest, is a fantastic premise for a film. Blade of the 47 Ronin, unfortunately, does not deliver on said premise. Dacascos is great, as expected, and I love that, in the film’s world, nobody bats an eye at the sight of fully-armed samurai walking around in modern-day Hungary. But the tone, herky-jerky storytelling, cheap effects, CGI blood, and uneven acting make this feel like a direct-to-Syfy title or worse, a rejected CW pilot. Which is a shame, because it had elements that could’ve made for a cool cult classic. A third 47 Ronin film is currently in development, which seems unnecessary. But maybe the third time will be the charm.
Shin Ultraman
I have only a passing familiarity with Ultraman, so I don’t know how well Shin Ultraman works as a reboot of the classic tokusatsu series. The storyline was as ridiculous as you’d expect, filled with technobabble and over-the-top monsters, as was the filming, which constantly employed crazy edits and “Dutch angles” to make the proceedings feel ultra-dramatic (npi). Like its predecessor, 2016’s Shin Godzilla, Shin Ultraman often felt like a parody of the genre, albeit one made by people who obviously love the genre. I enjoyed film’s visuals — e.g., Ultraman’s “Spacium Beam” attack and his flying poses — all of which had a delightfully retro feel to them. But its episodic nature was a downside. It felt less like a coherent film and more like a miniseries that’d been chopped up and re-edited together, and thus missing key scenes that would’ve helped smooth things out.
Lost Bullet 2
I didn’t enjoy this as much as the first Lost Bullet, due mainly to some weird tonal shifts. The film couldn’t quite decide if it was a hard-boiled police thriller, a car stunt showcase, or an action comedy. It tries to do all three to varying degrees, and suffers a bit as a result. Still, a decent enough Friday night popcorn film with some truly ridiculous (read: enjoyable) stunts and action scenes. The end clearly sets up a third film, which I’ll definitely be watching when it (presumably) arrives on Netflix.
Iron Monkey
Some thoughts after watching Yuen Woo-Ping’s 1993 kung fu classic for the umpteenth time. First, why isn’t Yu Rongguang more well-known? He’s so good as the titular bandit, even outshining Donnie Yen. Second, it’s safe to say that The Matrix, as we know it, wouldn’t exist without Iron Monkey if only because Yuen lifted some of this movie’s choreography for Neo et al. Third, few things are as consistently entertaining as early-to-mid ’90s Hong Kong movies. It’s a testament to that era’s filmmaking that Iron Monkey is so frenetic, visually speaking, but also so legible and easy to follow. (Read my review)
Lean, mean French action movie about a former crook-turned-police mechanic who goes on the run after corrupt cops kill his mentor. The stunts and fight scenes are pretty great, but what’s really impressive is the movie’s storytelling efficiency. There’s almost no filler here and very little exposition, and yet the characters and their relationships still feel fleshed out.
A film about Santa Claus relying on his violent past to save a young girl from kidnappers? Seems like a total home run. Violent Night has some clever Santa-themed kills (though the violence is blunted by CGI blood). But the movie’s best aspects (e.g., Santa’s violent Viking past, David Harbour’s performance) get diluted by references and similarities to other classic Christmas-themed movies (e.g., Home Alone, Die Hard, The Ref). Which is a shame, because this has “cult hit” written all over it.
The first Knives Out was an instant classic here at Opus HQ. Glass Onion hits some of the same high points — Blanc solving the original murder mystery in seconds is a delight — but it just doesn’t have the same joie de vivre as its predecessor. Maybe it’s because a film featuring an infantile billionaire hits a little too close in light of Elon Musk’s Twitter activity, or the irony of an “eat the rich” film costing Netflix $469 million is a little to, um, rich for my blood, or because the destruction of priceless art feels different in light of Just Stop Oil’s protests. These things obviously aren’t the fault of Rian Johnson or his talented cast, but I couldn’t stop thinking about them while watching the film.
There’s much to like about Guillermo del Toro’s adaptation of the classic tale: the stop motion animation, the depiction of fascist Italy, the Blue Fairy’s angelic design, Gregory Mann’s performance as the titular character. So I’m still trying to figure out why I didn’t like it more than I did.
I decided to watch this after learning about director Albert Pyun’s death. Put simply, it’s grade “A” early ’90s direct-to-video cheese. It shamelessly rips off better movies like Blade Runner and Terminator but has more spirit and energy than many Hollywood blockbusters. Come for the ’90s cyberpunk fashion (e.g., silk double-breasted suits, wraparound sunglasses, “futuristic” guns that never need reloading), stay for the non-stop scene-chewing, surprisingly elaborate stunts, and really cool practical effects.
Good Night Oppy
If my reaction to this documentary about the Opportunity Mars rover is any indication, then I guess I’m a sucker for documentaries that anthropomorphize machines. While the sentiment gets laid on a bit thick at times, the rover’s remarkable mission and the stories of the humans behind it are consistently fascinating and inspiring. If you recently finished Andor, then Good Night Oppy will give you another droid to fall in love with.
One of my favorite martial arts movies of all time, and remastered and released on Blu-ray last year. This movie has everything: physics-defying combat, exploding ninjas, existential and melodramatic ruminations on honor and martial arts, and did I mention the exploding ninjas? The last 25 minutes or so are more insane than any ten Hollywood action movies combined. (Read my review)
An obvious star vehicle for The Rock, but not even his trademark charisma can save this tedious superhero movie. DC seemed to be angling for something inspirational à la 2018’s Black Panther, but it falls flat. One bright spot was Pierce Brosnan, who brought some welcome gravitas as Doctor Fate. I’m a sucker for DC’s magic-oriented characters (e.g., John Constantine, Zatanna), and enjoyed seeing Fate on the screen.
I totally understand why this movie is such a classic for so many people. It’s exceptionally well-made (the music cues are 100% on point), it has some hilarious scenes, and it’s filled with a certain joie de vivre that’s distinctly ’80s. (Also, it’s very nostalgic.) But unfortunately, I just don’t like Ferris Bueller himself. I’m sure most see him as a lovable jerk, but he’s just a jerk to me.
I chuckled pretty consistently throughout this movie, especially when Jack Black showed up as Wolfman Jack or Wierd Al became the world’s greatest assassin. But I think I would’ve enjoyed it more had I seen it with a bunch of like-minded fans.