Review: Films Set In Japan – ‘The Hunted’ (1995)

Christopher Lambert’s character Paul Racine is a New Yorker who gets lucky with a mysterious oriental lady whilst on a business trip to Nagoya. After their night of passion he basically finds himself in the wrong place at the wrong time having returned to her apartment just in time to see her decapitated for a transgression by the ninja assassin Kinjo whose face must never be seen by anyone. Incredibly Racine somehow survives the ninjas which really does transcend the bounds of realism given how easily they manage to butcher and savage far stronger opponents lying in their wake further down the line.

So Racine is in hospital and even watches my favourite ever TV programme The A-Teamfor a brief moment. He sure could have done with their help as he finds himself a man marked for death having seen the legendary Kinjo’s face and is interviewed by a rival ninja clan who protect and later teach him, by way of an older guy, some basic moves. There’s quite a few references to the Japanese code of honour and with Racine the witness in a murder he becomes the hunted (ah so thats how they got the title!) and how far this code goes is a recurring theme.

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A train journey turns out to be one of the films high points as a slew of ruthless and shockingly violent carnage begins. Unlike most other films where there is the constant clanging sounds of swords in fights that go on for all eternity these ones involve a quick stab here and a slash there. It’s brutal and gruesome and is moderately successful in blending the old samurai mystique with modern Japanese society.

It’s a movie which just about scrapes over the halfway mark in the ratings due to its simplicity, pace and the pure fact that when I watched this I may have just been in the right mood for some pointless and unnecessary blood and gut violence.

Tokyo Fox Rating 6/10

TF Film Review: Zero Dark Thirty (2013)

This is the story of the decade-long hunt for Osama Bin Laden and is director Kathryn Bigelow’s first movie since ’The Hurt Locker‘ (2008) which was critically acclaimed. I can’t say that I ever really went along with the hype of that film but I guess its success made it much easier for the ‘Zero Dark Thirty‘ story to be told.

It is not your typical Hollywood movie and doesn’t really have a plot as such but is more about tracking and killing Osama Bin Laden, leader of al-Qaeda. The protagonist is CIA agent Maya (Jessica Chastain) who is initially quite shocked at the tactics used by CIA interrogator Dan (Jason Clarke). He humiliates, beats and water boards one suspect in a fairly heavy first third of the movie yet despite this I still feel his character comes across as being more charismatic than Maya. Not such a bad thing though in my opinion and it is testament to Chastain’s acting that she is able to deliver a subdued and restrained performance. There is no attempt to draw the viewer in with any human sentiment by way of character development scenes or the often-used flashbacks which are paramount to the success of most films. I didn’t really care for that though as the story was gripping enough without needing such stuff to help move the story along.

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I went into this film with almost no knowledge of the subject matter other than that it was more about finding the worlds most dangerous man than the events of 9/11. As someone who has been fairly ignorant of such news I was armed with less information and facts than most viewers and therefore had no expectations going in to the cinema. I’m sure the real events were a bit different but as an entertaining piece of documentary-style film (without harder hitting questions of whether it was all worth it) I was more than happy with how it all came together on screen.

Even though 157 minutes is too long for a movie where we all know the outcome it’s still a very tense and breathtaking finale as you don’t really know how its gonna be portrayed. The raid on Bin Laden’s hideout (filmed on a specially constructed set in the deserts of Jordan) had me literally on the edge of my seat. The scenes of the Navy SEALs flying in to siege the place are compelling and with it shot to replicate the zero dark thirty (military code for the time 00:30) raid it brings another sense of meaning to the word dark in a film with very dark themes. Worth seeing in the total darkness of a cinema for that reason.

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Tokyo Fox Rating 8/10


Tora-san Meets Me In Shibamata!

I’d never heard of this place until I saw it mentioned in one of my film travel books a couple of years back. Little did I know that it was just down the road from Kanamachi on the Tokyo/Chiba border where I worked on Saturdays when I first came to Japan many many years ago. After a trip down memory lane to our old neighbourhood, fellow blogger Gideon (of Gideon Davidson Photography fame) and I decided to finish the day in Shibamata which is less than 20 minutes walk from Kanamachi station. Of course it has its own station but I didn’t want to transfer to the Keisei-kanamachi line just to go one stop whilst paying another 130 yen to do so!

If you think the 007 series of films is impressive by number then thats nothing compared to the ‘Otoko Wa Tsurai Yo‘ (It’s tough being a man) series which consists of 48 films  made between 1969 and 1995. Shibamata is the home to the main protagonist Tora-san and his family and friends which it is why its included in my book. Now I’m no expert on these movies but Tora-san is seemingly an optimistic guy who is unlucky in love as he travels back and forth between his beloved hometown and some remote place where he plans to peddle his wares to the locals. He generally meets a woman there who then by miraculous chance goes to Shibamata and bumps into the clumsily charming Tora-san. Of course its never a straight-forward romance though and chaos and hilarity often ensue with the main man invariably ending up heartbroken and walking off to his next destination.

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There’s a statue of Tora-san outside the station and just round the corner and across a road is the main shopping street lined with traditional Japanese souvenir, sweet and snack shops which all seem to have some kind of Tora-san merchandise or displays. There aren’t too many places left in and around Tokyo where you can escape the hustle and bustle of modern city life but this place, along with Kawagoe, is one such place to sample the more traditional side of Edo period Japan.

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It’s quite a short street and at the end you can see the Taishakuten temple quarters which looked quite nice covered in snow (but would have been even better a few days before) but because of that and the fact that it was late afternoon it was absolutely freezing walking around the buddhist temple gardens boardwalk which has to be done without shoes. Slippers are so often provided in Japan for so many different inside places and boy could we have done with them here!

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Behind the temple is the Tora-san museum which sadly we didn’t have time for but hopefully, like Tora-san himself, I will return to Shibamata to pay the place a visit.

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Italy Filming Locations: Angels & Demons (2009)

It’s fair to say I’ve been to quite a few filming locations over the last five years and as rewarding as they have all been it aint half nice to recognise places you’ve been to when watching an unseen movie. I saw ‘Angels & Demons‘ (2009) recently and was happy to see the story centred around places I’ve already visited. To be fair though, they are pretty famous sights in southern Italy but they certainly helped me get through the film. I was perhaps a little harsh in my review of ‘The Da Vinci Code‘ back in 2006 which in desperate search of a pun I called “a code of cr*p“. Much like that film I was still able to enjoy the fast paced intensity and drama of the action scenes and chases in ‘Angels & Demons’ not that I had much idea what was actually going on! Thankfully there’s Wikipedia for that!

Following the sudden death of the Pope the Roman Catholic Church mourns his death and Patrick McKenna (Ewan McGregor) takes temporary helm at the Vatican. The marble staircase seen in the screenshot below left was obviously not the real one but that of Caserta Palace, just north of Naples, which also played the same part in ‘Mission Impossible III‘ (2006). It is probably more famous as being Queen Amidala’s Theed Palace on Naboo in ‘Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace‘ (1999).

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Robert Langdon (Tom Hanks) is summoned to save the day and deduces that the four men likely to be elected Pope will all be killed at locations relating to the four elements – earth, air, fire and water – but before all that the pathway leads to the Pantheon on the Pizza della Rotonda. This Roman Catholic church possesses the very impressive concrete dome which is the largest unreinforced one in the world.

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The ‘earth’ element takes Langdon to the Piazza del Popollo where he enters Santa Maria del Popollo and eventually finds the first cardinal with a mouthful of soil in the crypt of this church. Not quite the same place in my picture below but near enough as the place where I could erm, be found with a mouthful of pizza was just a stones throw away from that church!

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The ‘air’ element is at The Vatican City in St Peter’s Basilica. The screenshots below are from the latter part of the movie and not exactly clear as they were nighttime scenes.

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‘Fire’ is represented by the Cornaro Chapel of Santa Maria della Vittoria where the third cardinal is burned to death. Then its on to ‘water’ at the beautifully picturesque Piazza Navona for one of the most dramatic scenes where the cardinal is dumped into the Fountain of the Four Rivers.

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Having saved the cardinal with the help of some passers-by Langdon is informed by one of them that the illuminati’s lair is Castel Sant’Angelo on the Tiber’s west bank. The barge dance scene in ‘Roman Holiday‘ (1953) took place below the bridge in front of this castle.

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BONUS: Temple Church on Inner Temple Lane in London is where Langdon and Sophie Neveu (Audrey Tautou of ‘Amelie’ fame) search for the tomb of a knight in ‘The Da Vinci Code‘ (2006) movie which came first although the book by Dan Brown was published after ‘Angels & Demons‘.

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TF Film Review: Life Of Pi (2012)

When I first heard last year that this Yann Martel booker prize winning novel was being made into a film I was taken aback. Only one question came to mind “How on earth can this be done?!” Having read and really enjoyed the book about ten years ago my mind turned to how a story principally involving just a boy and a Bengal tiger on a boat could translate to the silver screen. Of course CGI was the answer for 86% of the film and credit has to go to novice Indian actor Suraj Sharma who must have spent most of the filming acting by himself in front of a blue screen.

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I’m still not a big fan of 3D but once we get through the fairly religious-based (not in a  preaching way though) beginning background segment it really gets going and you end up living the movie. This is not only down to Sharma but the 3D which is invaluable for all the thoroughly enjoyable boat scenes which were filmed in a giant wave tank built in an abandoned airport in Taiwan. It’s fair to say that “Richard Parker’s” introduction is one of the most dramatic in film history thanks in main to the 3D.

Following the events which lead to him being at sea on a boat with just a tiger for company its a tale of storytelling and survival akin to an episode of ‘Man Vs. Wild‘ which I never thought would work in film but it really doesn’t lag at all with the musical score adding great value to the production.

I may be a little slow to pick up on the meaning of things sometimes but I wasn’t too keen on the bit right at the end where the story and its symbolism is quite patronisingly spelled out as if the viewers hadn’t understood the two hours preceding it. The spiritual themes are quite simple and say more about what one wants to believe rather than any obvious connection to faith in god.

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Overall, I was very relieved to see that this Ang Lee directed adaptation played fairly faithful to the book and for me its the characters (both young and old Pi and even “Richard Parker” himself) and not the scenery and effects which make this film an absorbing 127 minutes.

Tokyo Fox Rating 8/10