Showdown in Little Tokyo

Showdown in Little Tokyo is one of my guilty pleasures.

It has Dolph Lundgren in the Arnie role, and Brandon Lee as his goofy partner. Before Brandon (son of Bruce, you know) became The Crow (full review) and then was tragically killed on set, he did a few chop socky flicks like this and the less effective Rapid Fire. In this one he plays an Asian Task Force Cop who’s a Valley boy and knows nothing of his culture. Part of what I liked about it was that he never sees the life and embraces Zen. He does however, want to eat sushi off of naked chicks, but who wouldn’t? I mean, hot chicks. Freshly scrubbed ones. Actually it’s probably one of those things that sounds more erotic than it really is, unless you’re an emasculated Japanese salaryman who can only get off by subjugating women.
But it’s that kind of movie. Japanese-scare flicks were big in the ’80s, such as Rising Sun, but by the 1991 it was a bit dated. The movie doesn’t let that bother it. Lundgren plays an L.A. cop with his own rules, whose parents were murdered in Japan by the Yakuza. This led him to love samurai culture so much that he becomes the big white super samurai who likes kicking Yakuza ass, waiting to avenge his parents. His beat seems to be driving around Little Tokyo and waiting for gangsters to threaten store owners, and then destroy their store in the process of kicking the shit out of said gangsters. It’s nice work if you can get it. He meets Brandon this way, as they pull guns on each other, and fight, and then of course get a begrudging, professional respect. And later, they comment on dick size.
You know, like straight guys do. The “unlikely partners” aspect is fun because Lee is, like his father, a totally ripped little psycho dude, and Lundgren is a musclebound man-mountain from Hitler’s most lurid wet dreams. It’s like Laurel and Hard-on with Karate. The fights are very good because Lundgren actually competed in Shotokan tournaments, and Brandon Lee is… Brandon Lee. If hadn’t been killed, he’d be transcending his father’s legacy. Here he’s not reaching for the artistic skies, but it was a start. He’s the clown to Lundgren’s stone-faced straight man. Now another “of course” is that the Yakuza thugs are led by… the guy who killed Dolph’s parents. We knew that was coming. Played by the dependable Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa (Mortal Kombat, John Carpenter’s Vampires) he oozes with evil for evil’s sake. We meet him when he beheads a topless crack whore.
Yup. Tia Carrere plays one of his non-crack whores who sees the murder and goes to the cops. She also gets nude, but it’s a body double. Of course, she sleeps with Dolph; it’s a rare Hollywood film that lets an Asian male wet his chopstick. Now, I bet you’re saying Tommy likes this movie? I’d hate to hear what he has to say if he hated it! But really, the action and humor in Showdown in Little Tokyo absolve it of all its stupidities, including a guy getting impaled on a bent katana and thrown into a fireworks pinwheel that suddenly goes off for no reason except that it would be frickin’ awesome if it did that. You get to see Dolph Lundgren yank a man through a frickin’ door. You get awful jokes like Dolph telling Tia he’s so stealthy that she won’t hear him coming, and then later when she jumps on his Godzilla-size junk, she coyly whispers that she heard him come. Get it?
Brandon Lee makes the best of the ridiculous dialogue, somehow making lines such as “You have the biggest dick I’ve seen on a man” sound funny and not totally gay, after they fight yakuza in a bath house. He also gets to beat up the lead henchman while reading him his Miranda rights, only to throw him into a vat of meth-infected beer, and say “You have the right to be dead.” And he gets to say the line that inspired the title of this review, when they go on their last suicide mission into the bad guy’s lair: we’re gonna kill those guys, and then we’re gonna eat sushi off naked chicks! Because earlier, they saw rich Japanese businessmen doing that in one of those secret Japanese clubs where Japanese people go and do weird Japanese things, like eat sushi, and sing karaoke.
Although it wasn’t released until 1991, Showdown in Little Tokyo is an ’80s movie through and through. From the repetitive electronic soundtrack to the enormous body count of ethnic baddies, the mix of action and humor trying to riff off earlier hits like Commando and Die Hard, it missed the ’90s boat and didn’t realize it had to be more sensitive, and have some sort of message, maybe about the environment, or corporate malfeasance, or homelessness. That makes it a bit of a dinosaur, like the frat boy showing up in a pimp outfit at a costume party. But it made that ’90s concession where if you’re gonna kill a bunch of shady ethnic stereotypes, you have to have at least one of them be a good American. Like Fasil in True Lies, etc. Who was the good Latino in Commando? Exactly.
It’s a good dumb movie with plenty of boobs, guns, karate battles and explosions, and sometimes that’s just what you need. Dolph and Brandon made a good team, and I wish they’d had another chance to work together. Lundgren will return in Sly Stallone’s epic The Expendables, and I hope it jump-starts his career in America again.

Beers Required to Enjoy: 2
Could it be remade today? With Russian mobsters, sure.
Quotability Rating: Good
Cheese Factor: Easy cheesey, Japanesey
High Points: Brandon & dolph yukkin’ it up
Low Point: offensive Asian stereotypes
Gratuitous Boobies: Tia’s body double and a hot blonde (and the lead Yakuza guy’s tattooed man-boobies)

Showdown in Little Tokyo on Netflix

http://rcm.amazon.com/e/cm?t=plyoto-20&o=1&p=8&l=as1&asins=B000E8QVCO&fc1=000000&IS2=1&lt1=_blank&m=amazon&lc1=0000FF&bc1=000000&bg1=FFFFFF&f=ifr

mondo mini movie reviews!

This is what I’ve watched in the past week or so.

Black Dynamite
A hilarious homage to the blaxploitation flicks of the ’70s, this one should not be missed. A dose of Dolemite with a dash of The Mack and Superfly, martial artist Michael Jai White plays the title character who’s out to avenge his dead brother, who was working for the CIA when a mafia drug deal went sour. It begins with him kicking an old lady through a door, and ends with him kicking ass at the White House, as his battle leads him to The Man himself. It gets a little silly in the middle when we learn what the Sinister Plot is, just in time for a homage to Enter the Dragon, but the dialogue is so moronically clever that you’ll be laughing the entire time. “If your momma was alive to see this, she’d be spinning in her grave!”

4 out of 5 fat muthafuckas wrestlin’ over pork chops ‘n greens

The Cove
If you ask the average person in Japan if they eat dolphin, they’d say no. So then why are thousands slaughtered every year in a secretive cove in Taiji? This documentary plays like a heist film as the man who trained Flipper, now turned activist, exposes the brutal and bloody secret of the dolphin industry, where hundreds are harvested for amusement parks and the rest are butchered for meat, and because the Japanese fishing industry thinks they eat too many fish. Yeah, really. This doc certainly has an agenda, but all good ones do; it takes great pains to show that the average Japanese has no idea this is going on, and this is no different than the corruption in America’s cattle industry, which keeps us from testing every animal for Mad Cow disease. You’ll never go to Sea World again after you watch this one.

4.5 out of 5 senseless slaughters

A Serious Man
The Coens weave a darkly comic tale of Larry Gopnik, a physics teacher whose life takes on the story of Joband the puzzle of Schroedinger’s Cat as his life begins to fall apart. I found it interesting, but at times deliberately difficult, and a little pretentious. It calls back to Barton Fink, and is enjoyable as a dark comedy if you don’t want to wonder if Gopnik is destined to misery because he’s angered God, is being tested, or has just made a serious of bad choices that like Schroedinger’s Cat, he can’t tell the result of without affecting it. It’s a good discussion film, but not for everyone; if you hated Synecdoche, NY you’ll probably find parts of this a little pretentious. I myself liked it, but felt some of it superfluous. The opening story of the dybbuk makes sense in retrospect, as it can be likened to Schroedinger’s cat, and then the issue of a student who may or may not be trying to bribe Gopnik for a better grade, and so on. There’s also the story of his son preparing for his bar mitzvah, which is both entertaining and nostalgic; did I mention it’s all set in the Jewish neighborhood of Minneapolis suburbs in the late 60’s? Nice touch. Much like the story of the dybbuk, it places it in the past and gives it all the feel of a parable.

4 out of 5 Larry Storches
The Hurt Locker
Wow. This is a war film, and the best depiction of the Iraq War I’ve seen, but first of all it is a character study. A study of the kind of adrenaline junkie operator who can handle the job of Explosive Ordnance Disposal- defusing bombs and IEDs in a war zone. Kathryn Bigelow has made a documentary-style masterpiece that takes the opening sequence of A Touch of Evil, where we see a bomb put in a car’s trunk and follow it, knowing it must go off, and makes it into a gripping war thriller. The movie is over 2 hours long, but felt like 90 minutes. Like the heroes of a Michael Mann film, these are men who define themselves by what they do, and there is a paucity of dialogue. Sgt. James leads a small squad after their leader is killed; they’re short timers who just want to go home, but he actually seems to love this job. And he’s incredibly good at it. The story unfolds like a memoir, with little structure, jumping from a sniper battle in the desert to an Iraqi base rat kid who James takes under his wing, to his men wondering if he’s going to get them killed. He’s a mystery; but in the end, we see his heart, and what makes him tick. It’s a brilliant character study of the kind of man it takes to do this insane job, disguised as a satisfying thriller. It is one of my favorites of the year, and it’s a toss-up to me whether it or Up in the Air is the better picture. Both make great entertainment out of prescient issues we’d rather ignore.

5 out of 5 Best Director Oscars for Kathryn Bigelow, Dammit

The Ghost Writer
Fuck you, Polanski. Come let justice be served. Stop being Noah Cross. Have you made a great movie since then anyway? You’re not getting my money until you pay your debt.

Temple Grandin
Excellent biopic of an autistic woman who revolutionized the beef industry by making slaughterhouses more humane. I read her story in the Star-Ledger years ago, and Claire Danes portrays her amazingly in what will surely be an Emmy-nominated performance. This is playing on HBO, and you should see it. It tries to give us the view of the world through her eyes, and while some of the direction is a bit indulgent and lazy- a montage set to guitar as she figures out how to get on a cattle lot that won’t let women in for example- the story itself is compelling and touching. It’s a TV movie for sure, but Danes performance, and David Strathairn as the teacher who understands her genius, make it worth your time.

3.5 out of 5 moo moo everywhere a moo moos

Dirty Ho
No, not porn! One of the better humorous kung fu flicks of the ’70s. Pita-San and I watched this and One-Armed Boxer vs. the Master of the Flying Guillotine, which has some cool fights and great kraut-rock music by Neu!; Dirty Ho is a kung fu comedy from ’79 starring Chiu hiu “Gordon” Liu, best known as Johnny Mo/Pai Mei from the Kill Bill movies. I’d recognize that bald noggin anywhere! He plays a prince with many brothers who’re trying to kill each other off for Dad’s inheritance, and he tricks a scheming thief named … Dirty Ho… to help him. Let’s face it, the name is what makes you watch this movie the first time, but it has great training sequences and fights, and plenty of laughs and slapstick. Plus a great scene where Gordon “fights” using his servant. An underappreciated classic, if you love kung fu flicks, you must find this one.

4 out of 5 dirty ho’s

© 2010 Thomas Pluck.

Sumo Soup

MMA fighters agree: chankonabe, otherwise known as “sumo wrestler’s soup,” is good eats. We had some after viewing the Art of the Samurai exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in NYC a few weekends back. It’s now moved on. They were exhibiting many swords and sets of armor that had never left Japan before. I got to see a Masamune, a Muramasa, some rare older tachi swords that were not shortened after katana came into style, and some other huge and rare blades including double-edged swords based on Chinese styles. Afterward, Suzanne (shown here with her daughter Nina) suggested we go to Menchanko-Tei in midtown.
It’s a great noodle house that I hadn’t been to in years. They serve ramen and udon, but they also serve the infamous sumo soup- loaded with protein and made without the ubiquitous dashi broth of Japanese soups, because fish ain’t got arms and legs, and a wrestler needs them to win! It is most often made with chicken because they are always on two legs as a sumo wrestler should be. You can order them with slices of beef, chicken or pork. The spicy chige miso menchanko was my choice, with pork slices. It comes with fish balls, tofu and head-on shrimp by default, and the miso broth with bonito flakes is delicious on its own.
Firecracker opted for the Sara-Udon, which came with crispy noodles and lots of veggies. Everything was delicious, and there are vegetarian options depending on the broth you like. We didn’t order their ramen this time, but I’ve had it and it is on par with what I had in Japan. The sumo soup, or as close as you can get in NYC, was excellent. Very filling, intensely flavorful and generally healthy unless you add slabs of their delectable roast pork like I did! Their gyoza (dumplings) made with Berkshire pork are the best I’ve had- not counting soup dumplings. It was the perfect filling meal for a bitter windy winter day.
There are two locations, one on 45th just east of Grand Central Station, and another on 55th. At Grand Central, we stopped at the great little coffee shop Joe’s Art of Coffee, which makes a great cup. They had donuts by the Donut Plant- which were good but didn’t live up to expectations. I don’t eat a lot of sweets, and they all taste similar to me unless they are very rich. The chocolate donut had the flavor of good cocoa, and the apple fritter was better. Maybe they weren’t fresh. I only go out of my way for burgers, hot dogs and the occasional BBQ, so until I’m checking out burgers in the Lower East Side, donuts will have to wait.

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Shonen Knife

I first heard of Shonen Knife back when they covered “Top of the World” for the If I was a Carpenter… tribute album (made re-famous by the inclusion of Sonic Youth’s cover of Superstar in the movie Juno) back in the early ’90s. I didn’t get into them, unfortunately, and unlike my skate-murderer buddy Keith, didn’t go see them when they first toured the States. As luck would have it, they returned to the same venue, Maxwell’s in Hoboken, last Saturday, and I made sure to go see them.
J-pop has gotten immensely more popular in the States since then, and Shonen Knife is more of a J-Rock group actually. They’ve performed in Japan as “The Osaka Ramones” tribute band, to give you an idea of their music. Energetic, lots of fun, with the same silly love of life that most Ramones songs have. Do you like fruits and vegetables? Why not sing about it? Do you have a very bad sense of direction? Maybe you need a Mapmaster. And you should write a song about it. That’s what Shonen Knife is like, with ’60s style guitars and lots of long black hair flying around like Cousin It’s become a headbanger.
Opening bands were Girls at Dawn, who I missed some of- but they had a good set. They did a lovely, poppy cover of Misfits “Last Caress” that really stood out, but I’d hear them play again. Unfortunately they were sort of blown off the stage by Nashville duo Jeff the Brotherhood, who manage to rock your face off with a 3 stringed guitar and a set of drums. They reminded me a lot of early Sabbath and the Melvins, and I liked them so much I bought their album Heavy Days on vinyl. Bonus, it’s grey vinyl and comes with a free digital download of the album. They were a great opening band with lots of energy, and if only the ceiling were higher I’m sure they would have jumped off the amp:
Then Shonen Knife came on, opening with “Konnichiwa,” their standard opening song. Naoko, the guitarist, is the only original gal left, but the new bassist Ritsuko and drummer Etsuko do an amazing job. They have lots of energy too, and you know that they just love rock ‘n roll. And it’s infectious. They played songs old and new, from their lighter poppy early tunes to many tracks off “Heavy Songs” and their new album “Supergroup,” which feel more power punk. As always, they sing in English on American tour, but have Japanese and English versions of their albums. Naoko speaks English well and introduced a lot of the songs, such as “BBQ Party,” saying she wrote it because it’s one of her favorite American foods. My favorite new one was the aforementioned “Mapmaster,” which reminded me of a cross between Ramones and early Jonathan Richman and the Modern Lovers. They put on a great show, and the 75 minute set felt like it flew by. I liked them so much I considered seeing their Brooklyn show last night, but alas, I had to go get beat up at MMA class.
Since I got the tickets, Pete got me a Shonen Knife workout towel- you can see them around their necks in the photo of him with the band:

Here’s the band singing “Banana Chips”

I also have a clip of them covering “Daydream Believer,” I’ll edit this post when it’s finished uploading.

Counting Down the Zeroes: Spirited Away

This post is part of Film for the Soul‘s excellent Counting Down the Zeroes project, reviewing the great films of the past decade.

One more thing to thank Pixar for is helping get Hayao Miyazaki’s Studio Ghibli some respect in the States. I’ve been a fan since I saw Nausicaa presented at a science fiction convention in the early ’90s; back then was only available on a bootleg VHS with subtitles created by American fans who learned Japanese. Later I saw Princess Mononoke at an Asian Cultural Center in Minneapolis, dubbed for American release. So I thought it was wonderful when in 2003 he won the Academy Award for Best Animated Feature with Spirited Away.

Princess Mononoke was the general American public’s introduction to Miyazaki, and it is practically an action film, with a war between nature and a village of gunmakers; it’s an easy sell. Spirited Away is a disturbing fairy tale about a young girl kidnapped and enslaved by a witch. Instead of an action film we get an Alice in Wonderland set in a strange fairy tale world sprung from Miyazaki’s imagination, melding all sorts of folklore.
It is the tale of Chihiro, a young girl who is moving to a new town with her parents. She is angry at leaving home, and sits petulantly in the back of the car. Her father takes a deep forest road, and they come upon an abandoned amusement park. As they explore, her parents find a room laden with delicious food, and begin eating ravenously. Chihiro senses that something is off, and does not eat; she comes upon a boy named Haku, who warns her to leave with her parents, but it is too late. Her parents have begun turning into pigs, and there is no return. They have entered the land of spirits, and cannot escape.
Rather disturbing, isn’t it? No more than a fairy tale, and that’s what this is. Chihiro follows Haku, who wants to protect her, but soon she is in the thrall of the witch Yubaba, a wizened old woman of bizarre proportions. Her parents are soon in Yubaba’s pigsty and Chihiro must find a way to free them and escape; her only choice is to work for the witch, at her bath house, where all the spirits come to get clean. From there on, we follow the naive yet plucky Chihiro as she works off her debt in the spirit world, making friends and learning the secrets of Haku and Yubaba.
The world is one of mystery and wonder, rooted in mundane work life. Another worker named Lin takes her under her wing- she’s one of the few humans there- and teaches her the ropes. They toil together scrubbing the baths, which are visited by frog men, dragons and “stink spirits.” Some are the spirits of rivers and trees, in other guises; others are pure mystery, such as a cloaked, silent figure in Noh mask who seems a little too friendly and generous. Chihiro learns that Haku is also bound to Yubaba, and hopes to free him as well someday.
The story is slowly paced, but there is always something fantastic going on. The characters are full and believable, whether they are witches or drudges. And as always, the beautiful animation of Studio Ghibli is the backdrop. We see oriental dragons have dogfights in the sky against swarms of paper birds cutting them to ribbons; a spidery man with a dozen gangly limbs operating a coal furnace fed by a tiny army of dust motes; and parades of all kinds of spirits and fantastic creatures as they walk across the bridge to town.
The world has the same grip that the creations of Jim Henson and Terry Gilliam, and it’s not all fun and games. Yubaba takes Chihiro’s name as collateral, and renames her “Sen,” as it capturing her soul. A ravenous spirit begins luring the bath house workers with gold nuggets and swallowing them whole. And Yubaba’s minions include a trio of bouncing, grunting, bearded disembodied heads and a beastly enormous baby she dotes over. We get a real sense of danger for little Sen, no matter how resourceful she is.
Spirited Away is more than a coming of age folk tale about a spoiled child forced to grow up in a strange world. In part, the bath house is a token from old Japanese culture, “the good old days.” In 2001 when this was made, Japan was undergoing its own economic crisis, and a yearning for the simplicity of old abounded. The familiar Miyazaki nods to nature are subtle, but there; we see a polluted river spirit fly free, once it is freed of the garbage weighing it down. The punishment for the gluttonous parents is obvious; we have grown fat and need to tighten our belts. So in some ways, it is just as poignant for America now as it was for Japan eight years ago.
But lessons aside, this is a great story; at just over two hours, it never drags or feels indulgent. It envelops you, like a good fantasy should. There are mistakes and redemption; people of compassion and greed, selfish vampires, gluttons and the reward of earnest hard work, pride in doing the right thing, and forgiveness for trespasses. We dive deep into a strange yet familiar world, and meet fantastic and interesting characters. We even see someone eat a dried lizard, who makes it look so tasty you wish you could have a nibble.
Spirited Away is the perfect marriage of the more energetic Princess Mononoke and the children’s fairy tale of My Neighbor Totoro, that can be enjoyed by everybody. And while Ghibli has made better films- Grave of the Fireflies and Only Yesterday are truly great movies- this is a favorite, and one of the great animated films. You can watch it subtitled, or with the excellent English dub that was released by Disney in 2003. When you see the wonder of WALL-E, know that it stands on Chihiro’s little shoulders.

Wasabi

Jean Reno is one of my favorite actors. I’ve been to Japan and like the crazy Zoku girls. So a movie where Jean Reno is a French supercop who finds out he has a daughter with a Japanese flame who’s passed on should be perfect for me, right?

WRONG!

Written by Luc Besson’s factory of monkeys with typewriters, and directed by a a Monsieur Ratner type who’s body of work is the 3 Taxi sequels, we have a script so flimsy that I couldn’t keep my eyes open. Those that know me might say my eyes are barely open when I’m surprised, but let me reiterate- a goofball cop movie where Reno punches transvestite bank robbers across the room like Arnold Schwarzenegger strutting onto the set of Dog Day Afternoon in an outtake from Last Action Hero should never be boring. And sadly, Wasabi is.
The joke bit of title is that Yumi is supposed to be like the condiment, spicy Japanese horseradish paste that’s surprisingly colorful and potent. The problem is, she’s just a typical annoying teenager. The actress was 21, so fap away, but she was pretty unappealing in this one. It was a film I wanted to like, but couldn’t be bothered with; I’d seen it all before, and Jean was really phoning it in. This wants to be a comedy version of Leon: The Professional but Hirosue doesn’t have Natalie’s acting chops, and there’s little chemistry between the trio of Reno, his daughter, and his partner Momo playing fish out of water in Tokyo.

Rating: Stinky