REVIEW: STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS (2015)

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STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS (2015)

(Remember, clicking the highlighted links brings you to other reviews and articles here at The Movie Madhouse!)

It’s been a decade since the last Star Wars movie Revenge Of The Sith, but the beloved franchise is back, powered by Disney and J.J. Abrams, who wonderfully rebooted the Star Trek series in 2009…sadly, he is not quite as successful here.

The story begins decades after the events of Return Of The Jedi with Luke Skywalker disappearing into self-imposed exile after losing one of his star Jedi pupils to the dark side with disastrous results. From the ashes of the fallen Empire come The First Order, who are basically Empire 2.0 complete with Sith Lord leader, his metal masked lackey, Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) and yet another destructive super weapon…will they ever learn? A droid named BB8 is entrusted with a map that divulges the location of Skywalker (and who made this map if no one knows where he is?) and The First Order wants it in fear his return would bring back the Jedi and halt their evil plot. A young scavenger named Rey (Daisy Ridley) and an ex-stormtrooper named Finn (John Boyega) find the droid and try to return him to his owner, resistance pilot Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) with the help of a crotchety old Han Solo (Harrison Ford).

One of the biggest problems that The Force Awakens suffers from…aside from being about 15 minutes too long…is that it feels more like an expensive fan film than an actual Star Wars movie. J.J. Abrams certainly incorporates a lot of the elements we expect from this series, but the spirit seems absent. It feels like an imperfect imitation much like his Super 8 felt like a slightly-off copy of a film Steven Spielberg might have made in the 80s. The magic isn’t there. Another thing is the script by Abrams, Lawrence Kasdan and Michael Arndt is weak and offers a thin plot that Abrams stretches out over two hours. There is also a disturbing amount of conveniences that move that plot along, like characters who just happen to bump into each other in the vastness of space or characters who just happen to have crucial information that saves our heroes from doing any real work to get it. If you thought the Empire had crappy security, wait till you meet The First Order. Too many characters are also in the right place at the right time too often. Yet another problem is that while I admire Abrams’ decision to use as much practical effects as possible, the lack of enhancement for the settings makes them remain very Earth-like and I never felt it was in a galaxy far, far away. Aside from the actual scenes taking place in space, the film always looked like it took place on earth. Lucas created some interesting worlds even in the worst of the prequel flicks, here it always looks like exactly where it was shot and some of the sets actually look cheap without a little matte painting or cgi background help. Like them or hate them, the prequel flicks had an epic look and feel. This feels like a TV show sometimes. Even John Williams delivers quite possible the weakest of his Star Wars scores with very little memorable aside from the classic marches and themes.

There are definitely some pluses. The action does move, though even all these years later, tie fighters vs X-wings is getting a bit tiresome. I did like Daisy Ridley’s Rey and Boyega’s Finn. They show promise that when the torch is passed solidly, they may be quite engaging in their own adventures and both actors add charm in their thinly written parts. Oscar Issac’s ace fighter pilot, Dameron is less successful and is kinda bland and doesn’t do much. I wasn’t all that impressed with Adam Driver’s Vader-wannabe Kylo Ren, either. He basically seems like a Sith spoiled brat acting out and for reasons I won’t spoil, that’s kinda exactly what he is. As for the much hyped Captain Phasma (Gwedoline Christie), blink and you’ll miss her. Harrison Ford seemed like he was having a good time returning as Han and he is one of the highlights of the film, as is Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew). It was also nice to see Carrie Fisher back as General Leia and she looks tired and weary as a character fighting a prolonged war should be. BB8 has a lot of personality as the film’s main droid character and should sell a lot of toys. While C3PO and R2D2 do make appearances, they take a back seat to the new droid in town. There are other familiar faces too, but I’ll leave them for you to discover.

So, overall, the new Star Wars was OK in certain ways, but disappointing in others. There is some nice nostalgia, but Abrams has a weak script and thin plot…which he is partially responsible for…to work with and stretches that thin story out over two hours. There are far too many conveniences to forgive, even when the action gets fun and the film is uneven character-wise as the heroes are engaging, yet the villains are weak and mostly forgettable. There are a lot of holes as to how we got to this point in Star Wars history and certain plot elements, some I won’t reveal, just don’t add up. Hopefully we’ll learn more in the upcoming Abrams-less sequels and maybe that Star Wars magic can yet be revived, but for now Force Awakens is a mediocre return for this beloved franchise.

-MonsterZero NJ

  2 and 1/2 Millenium Falcons.

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BARE BONES: SANTA’S LITTLE HELPER and POD

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SANTA’S LITTLE HELPER (2015)

Moderately amusing and heavily cliché’d flick has selfish businessman, Dax (WWE superstar Mike “The Miz” Mizanin) out of a job and being tested for a new one by mysterious woman, Billie (AnnaLynne McCord). It turns out Billie is one of Santa’s elves and old St. Nick (Eric Keenleyside) needs a new right hand man and based on his kind-hearted youth, feels Dax is the one to be his new “Ho Ho”…not making that up. Standing in Dax’s way is ambitious and arrogant elf, Eleanor (WWE superstar Paige) who is outraged that a normal human is being courted for the job and not her…and vows to stop him.

Silly flick has it’s amusing moments, but is so cliché that it needed a lot more entertainment value to overlook it’s extremely familiar story from James Robert Johnston and Bennett Yellin’s script. As directed by Gil Junger it is very-by-the numbers and only McCord’s adorable perkiness adds some life. Both Mizanin and Paige seem to just be playing versions of their WWE ring persona’s and the film doesn’t try hard enough to give itself some real Christmas spirit. Completely bland and forgettable, but not without some small amount of charm…probably more due to watching it during the Christmas season than the film itself. At least the girls were cute.

Kids may find it more amusing, especially if they are fans of Miz and Paige, but after her work in Excision, McCord deserves better.

2 and 1-2 star rating

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POD (2015)

Sci-fi/horror has psychiatrist Ed (Dean Cates) picking up his alcoholic sister Lyla (Jug Face’s Lauren Ashley Carter) and heading to a remote cabin to check on brother Martin (Brian Morvant). Martin is a paranoid schizophrenic with a history of violence and emotional problems who recently sent Ed an ominous and upsetting message. They arrive to find the house and Martin, in complete disarray with the ex-soldier claiming to have been part of government experiments and that one of those experiments, has followed him there. Does Martin really have a creature locked up in the basement or has he finally lost his mind?

Written and directed by Mickey Keating, this isn’t a bad movie just an extremely familiar one that offers nothing new to this conspiracy type tale told many times before and better…including 2014’s Extraterrestrial. The directing is competent and there are a few suspenseful scenes, but it’s predictable and we’ve seen it so many times before. The acting is decent, though Morvant’s raving gets really tiresome especially since it goes on for over 30 minutes. Worth a look, if you like X-Files flavored stuff, but don’t expect much or anything fresh or new. Also stars indie horror icon Larry Fessenden in a cliché role that I won’t spoil.

2 and 1-2 star rating

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-MonsterZero NJ
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TOMB OF NOSTALGIA: GREMLINS (1984)

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GREMLINS (1984)

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Gremlins is a fun Christmas set comedy/horror about a small town that comes under siege by a group of nasty little creatures. The story finds a down on his luck inventor (Hoyt Axton) buying a strange little furry creature called a Mogwai in a back-alley Chinatown shop for his son Billy (Zach Galligan). There are three rules given to insure safe care of the critter named Gizmo…keep him away from bright light, don’t get him wet and don’t feed him after midnight. Of course all the rules are broken along the way and Gizmo reluctantly spawns a group of horrid little creatures with a diabolical…and lethal…sense of humor. Now the sleepy little town of Kingston Falls is under attack and Billy and his sweetheart Kate (Phoebe Cates) must find a way to stop the little devils.

Created by the triple threat of producer Steven Spielberg, writer Chris Columbus and director Joe Dante, this is a really entertaining movie that has become an outright classic. While it appears to be a kid friendly family film on the outside, there is a devious sense of humor bestowed upon the flick, which has always been Dante’s trademark…and it works exceptionally well here. The film has some fun moments and some cartoonish characters, like the Scrooge-like Mrs. Deagle (Polly Holliday), but it also has a definite mean streak as the title creatures ‘humor’ can be quite painful or deadly against it’s recipient. This keeps Gremlins from sliding into the sappy, sentimental level of Spielberg’s own E.T. and gives it a much needed and appreciated edge…though it grew criticism for some of it’s violence back in the day. The creatures themselves are well rendered with practical FX and one scene of model animation and this makes the story work all the better. Dante adds his usual movie nods…such as a doctor named “Moreau” and there are appearances from his regulars like Dick Miller and Belinda Balaski. There is also a fun score by legendary composer Jerry Goldsmith and some crisp cinematography, highlighting the holiday time of year, by John Hora.

Dante has a good cast here, too. Galligan is solid as the nerdy bank teller turned hero and he has a naive and down-to-earth charm that makes his character very likable. Cates does well playing the girl-next-door with a dark Christmas past. Cates had been know for sexier roles, but pulls off the all American girl very well. Folk singer Axton is surprisingly fun as the Billy’s inventor/dreamer father Randall Peltzer. Dante regular Dick Miller has an amusing part as one of Billy’s neighbors and Polly Holliday is perfectly Cruella Deville-like as Mrs. Deagle. A good cast that get the tone of the material perfectly.

Gremlins is a lot of fun and with the added nostalgic charm is even more endearing. It has a good cast, a director who adds just the right amount of dark humor and some very well rendered special FX to make our creatures believable. A fun movie recognized as a classic. Also stars comedian Howie Mandel as the voice of Gizmo.

-MonsterZero NJ

3 and 1/2 Gremlins

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TOMB OF NOSTALGIA: THE BEAST FROM 20,000 FATHOMS (1953) and THE GIANT BEHEMOTH (1959)

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This segment of Tomb Of Nostalgia takes the form of a double feature I watched this weekend…two personal favorite, old-school monster flicks!


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THE BEAST FROM 20,000 FATHOMS (1953)

(Remember, clicking the highlighted links brings you to other reviews and articles here at The Movie Madhouse!)

One of the all time great 1950’s creature features directed by Eugène Lourié with another classic monster from SPFX master Ray Harryhausen. Flick is based on a Ray Bradbury short story titled The Fog Horn and features genre favorite Kenneth Tobey. The story starts with an atomic bomb test in the Arctic which frees a prehistoric dinosaur from it’s icy grave. The creature wreaks havoc all down the coast as it heads toward NYC and a showdown with the military. Adding to the already aggressive nature of the beast is that it carries a bacteria in it’s blood that is unknown to today’s medicine and is quite lethal. Can it be stopped!?

Beast is the first of Lourié’s three classic monster movies (The Giant Behemoth and Gorgo being the others) and is directed in his serious and intense tone. The cast all take their roles seriously, too and it helps make this monster movie the classic it is. Obviously, the FX from Harryhausen are top notch and the Rhedosaurus is one of his most famous creations. Climax in New York is still thrilling even by today’s standards and is far better then the 1998 American Godzilla which was more a remake of this film then it was of the Japanese monster icon.
MONSTERZERO NJ EXTRA TRIVIA: Keep you eyes peeled for the army sharp shooter at the climax played by a then unknown Lee Van Cleef.

-MonsterZero NJ

4 Rhedosaurus.

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THE GIANT BEHEMOTH (1959)

Basically a retread of The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms but set in England. Behemoth also has the same director, Eugène Lourié, who brings a serious tone to the proceedings as with his other monster movies. It is his taking the material seriously and having his cast do the same that makes this as effective as it is. The difference between this and Beast is this creature is dying from the radiation poisoning received from atomic tests, making it twice as vicious and it’s ability to emit radioactive waves from it’s body like an electric eel, make it twice as lethal. The effects of it’s radioactive condition on some of the characters is quite disturbing, even for a film of this era. A giant monster movie with a bit of a nasty edge. The FX are delivered, this time, with contributions from the great Willis O’Brian (King Kong) and there is some nice intensity as this creature, driven mad with pain, rampages through the streets of London destroying and killing anything in it’s path. Nostalgic charm is ever present with the combination of stop motion animation and black and white photography. Also amusing to watch London get leveled, giving New York and Tokyo a much needed break, although the ominous ending may suggest that break may not be a long one. Well done and intense monster movie. For my Eugène Lourié’s third giant monster flick, Gorgo click HERE.

-MonsterZero NJ

3 and 1/2 behemoths

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WEEKEND BOX OFFICE ESTIMATES DEC 11-13

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Complete estimates are in for the weekend box office

1. “The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 2” $11.3 Million

2. “In The Heart Of The Sea” $11 Million

3. “The Good Dinosaur” $10.5 Million

4. “Creed” $10 Million

5. “Krampus” $8 Million

6. “Spectre” $4 Million

7. “The Night Before” $3.9 Million

8. “The Peanuts Movie” $2.65 Million

9. “Spotlight” $2.5 Million

10. “Brooklyn” $1.9 Million

 

source: Box Office Mojo

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HORROR YOU MIGHT HAVE MISSED: THE HOUSE AT THE END OF TIME (2013)

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THE HOUSE AT THE END OF TIME (2013)

(Clicking the highlighted links brings you to corresponding reviews and articles here at The Movie Madhouse!)

Dulce (Ruddy Rodriguez) has served 30 years in prison for the alleged murder of her husband Juan Jose (Gonzalo Cubero) and the disappearance of her son Leopoldo (Rosmel Bustamante). As per the law, the now old woman is released back to the house where it occurred, to finish her sentence. A young priest (Guillermo Garcia) believes she is innocent and begins to investigate the house which has a history of disappearances. As he questions Dulce about what happened in that house 30 years earlier, an unbelievable tale unfolds…a story that may still be going on within the walls of this unusual house.

Writer/director Alejandro Hidalgo has crafted a very spooky and unnerving flick that is quite full of surprises especially in its revelatory last act. While his visual style is simple and the colors of Cezary Jaworski’s cinematography are muted, Hidalgo supplies plenty of atmosphere to keep us on edge as the hidden truths are revealed over the course of the film. And while there is a lot to chill us and make us gasp, there is also a very sentimental center to Hidalgo’s film with it’s subplots about Dulce’s two sons, her fragmenting relationship with her husband and the themes concerning the power of a mother’s love. Hidalgo skillfully adds these elements without diluting the spookiness or the strength of the more intense moments. The film is a supernatural horror and the moments of drama only serve to get us emotionally involved, as well as, gives us crucial information as to what led to the fateful events that caused Dulce to be blamed for murdering those she loved. When events are cleverly played out for us in the last act, Hidalgo delivers some surprises worthy of M. Night Shyamalan at his very best. All this is intensified by an appropriately haunting score by Yoncarlos Medina and some really atmospheric Venezuelan locations.

The cast are all effective. Rodriguez is good as Dulce and must play double duty with portraying the woman in her youthful past and as an old woman. She has an intensity and is sympathetic, especially when the story details are revealed. Young Rosmel Bustamente is also very good as son Leopoldo and handles the varied emotions needed for his crucial role very well for a kid. Cubero is solid as husband Juan Jose whose reaction to the disintegration of his family puts the character through changes the actor portrays efficiently. Young Hector Mercado is cute and feisty as little brother Rodrigo and Guillermo Garica gives us a caring and intelligent man of the cloth who sympathizes with a woman thought to be a killer of the worst kind. A solid cast.

This film came with a reputation and lived up to it. It delivered some really nice atmosphere and chills and gave us some startling surprises via writer/director Alejandro Hidalgo. If you like supernatural haunting flicks like The Orphanage, with a little Twilight Zone thrown in, then this Venezuelan flick is for you. Hidalgo is a talent to keep an eye on.

-MonsterZero NJ

3 and 1/2 pearls.
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REVIEW: BOUND TO VENGEANCE (2015)

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BOUND TO VENGEANCE (2015)

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Bound To Vengeance is a vicious and intense revenge thriller with a powder keg of a leading lady. Pretty young Eve (Tina Ivlev) has been kidnaped, held and abused for six months by creepy Phil (Richard Tyson) and his associates. One day she escapes and turns the tables, chaining Phil up in the very dungeon he’s kept her in. Rummaging through Phil’s desert house, she finds evidence that he has other girl’s imprisoned elsewhere. Now Eve takes Phil hostage on a road trip to rescue the other girls, but discovers something far worse than she ever imagined…including a path to bloodthirsty vengeance that she may never be able to turn back from.

This is a nasty little thriller as directed by Jose Manuel Cravioto from a script by Rock Shaink Jr. and Keith Kjornes. The narrative begins with Eve’s daring escape and violently taking control of her former captor, then let’s us get to know the sweet girl before her abduction and what happened to her during her time with Phil, with flashbacks inter-spliced throughout the story. This gradually let’s us see how the pretty young girl transformed into the calculated and cold blooded angel of revenge that we are now watching…a girl capable of some vicious acts of violence against Phil and his associates. The script also has some fairly shocking surprises for us and an interesting look at how the abduction and mistreatment of these young women effected them differently. Not all of them are happy to see Eve. Obviously there is also some disturbing violence as Eve vents her rage against what appears to be an increasingly large network of creeps that Phil works amongst. There is a much larger picture here than just a perv shopping for young girls and we discover it as does Eve. It’s an intense and blood-spattered road to revenge led by a really powerful turn by our heroine…a heroine forever changed and not necessarily for the best.

To say that Tina Ivlev is a pure stick of dynamite in this flick is an understatement. We see a young woman strengthened by her abduction and abuse to the point of viciously delivering payback to those responsible. We see a sweet and energetic young woman filled with vitality and dreams in the flashbacks of footage, with her sister and boyfriend, then return to the present narrative as this sweet girl wields guns, bricks and various tools with equal brutality and lethality…and Ivlev gives her that sweetness and rage in equally effective doses. This actress has major potential. Tyson is perfectly creepy as Phil and even, at times, gets us to feel a little sorry for him as he is a small cog in a disturbingly bigger wheel, yet bares the brunt of much of Eve’s anger. He deserves it, no question, but Tyson gives him some depth…especially when Eve’s vengeance gets shockingly personal.

This film took me quite by surprise. I was expecting something fairly routine, but got something far more layered and with some truly disturbing surprises. We watch a sweet girl transformed into a calculated killer who has no problem viciously dispatching those who have wronged her and other young women. It’s a brutal and blood-soaked ride, where the evil that men do transforms one of their intended victims into the object of their own comeuppance. Recommend, but be warned, it is a nasty little flick. Also stars Bianca Malinowski as ‘Lea’ another captive Eve rescues.

-MonsterZero NJ

  Rated 3 and 1/2 (out of 4) bullets.

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TOMB OF NOSTALGIA: THE DAY TIME ENDED (1980)

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THE DAY TIME ENDED (1980)

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The Day Time Ended is an inept 1980 sci-fi low budgeter from legendary schlockmeister Charles Band. It’s basically a random bunch of special effects scenes strung together by the thinest of plots. Silly flick has a triple super nova causing a “space/time warp”, to quote one of the characters, that seems to center around a single desert house to the annoyance of it’s occupants. They are besieged by various UFOs and stop motion animated aliens and creatures and then the house itself starts to travel in and out of other dimensions. The flick then comes to an abrupt and absurd happy ending that leaves things wide open for a sequel.

Flick is directed with no life or energy by John ‘Bud’ Cardos (Kingdom Of The Spiders, Mutant) from a script by three people, no less. The acting is terrible, as is the dialog, and the characters are prone to making the stupidest decisions. My favorite of these being when searching for a lost little girl, grandpa carries a gun and almost shoots her, but grandpa leaves the gun in the house when going out to investigate noises in the barn. Makes perfect sense! Except for some nice stop motion animation from the late David Allen, the special FX are as cheesy as one can imagine, for a flick like this and it’s tedious even at only 79 minutes long. Actually saw this one in a theater…my favorite grind house, The Oritani Theater in Hackensack, NJ.

Only bother if you are a David Allen or Charles Band completest or simply enjoy bad cheesy low budget flicks of this era. Also stars Dorothy Malone (Peyton Place), Jim Davis (Dallas) and Chris Mitchum (son of the legendary Robert Mitchum).

MONSTERZERO NJ’S EXTRA TRIVIA: Star Marcy Lafferty was, at the time, William Shatner’s second wife and Shatner himself had starred in John ‘Bud’ Cardos’ Kingdom Of The Spiders three years earlier. Coincidence?…we may never know!

-MonsterZero NJ

Rated 2 (out of 4) David Allen critters that deserved a better movie.

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IT CAME FROM ASIAN CINEMA: AZUMI 2: DEATH OR LOVE

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AZUMI 2: DEATH OR LOVE (2006)

While this sequel isn’t a bad flick, it is a disappointment after the comic book-style roller coaster ride that was the first installment. Sequel is also directed instead by The Gamera Trilogy’s Shusuke Kaneko and Kaneko creates a more somber and traditional feel for the movie which also seems to be done on a lesser budget and scale.

Story picks up after the first movie with Azumi (Aya Ueto) and Nagara (Yuma Ishigaki) vowing to finish their mission to assassinate their final target, Sanada Masayuki (Mikijirō Hira). Things get complicated for Azumi when they join a group of bandits whose leader Ginkaku (Shun Oguri) bears a strikining resemblance to Nachi…the man Azumi loved and killed. Now the pretty assassin once again begins to doubt her occupation and path in life as she is falling in love all over again.

Kaneko is obviously a good director as his Gamera flicks prove, but may not have been the right choice to follow up the kinetic and colorful first flick. Kaneko has a more traditional style and we get a more laid back and sometimes somber story this time and one that appears to be far smaller in scale and possibly budget. The pace is a lot more moderate though it does have it’s share of top notch sword fights and there is plenty of bloodshed. The film seems to focus more on the dramatic aspects than the action, though and it’s characters are far more subdued even with more comic-ish characters like Roppa (Kengo) and the spider-like ninja Tsuchigumo (Tak Sakaguchi). The script is again by Mataichiro Yamamoto who co-wrote this time with Yoshiaki Kawajiri and seems to focus more on the character interplay and intrigue, this time, creating a more intimate story as opposed to Azumi‘s epically scaled tale. It does’t quite have the uniqueness Kitamura’s style of directing embellished his film with and stands out far less from the more routine sword flicks from Japan. The cinematography by Yoshitaka Sakamoto is a bit more muted in color thus further removing the more comic book/manga feel from the movie which overall is still a well made and satisfying conclusion to the story began in Azumi.

Again it’s Aya Ueto’s show, though she shares a lot of time with the other characters and is more part of an ensemble this time. She is solid as she was in part one and still gives Azumi a nice conflicted personality when hardened assassin collides with the young woman who dreams of a normal life she may not be able to have. The rest of the cast are very good, especially the returning Yuma Ishigaki as her only surviving teammate, Nagara and Kazuki Kitamura as Kanbê Inoue, who has now aligned with Sanada. The characters are less colorful, but performed well.

While the film is a disappointment when compared to Kitamura’s original, it’s still not a bad flick on it’s own. It has some good action and the cast, especially Ueto, do perform well, it just a more moderately paced and scaled adventure that tones down the more comic book aspects for a more traditional samurai flick approach. It does complete the story arc satisfyingly while giving us a Sergio Leone-esque ending that leaves the door open for Azumi to return someday. As Aya Ueto is still in her early thirties and Kitamura hasn’t had much success in his US film career, hopefully that happening is still a possibility.

-MonsterZero NJ

3  swords!

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