Sunday, November 23, 2014

Zatoichi's Revenge (1965)

Director: Akira Inoue
Notable Cast: Shintaro Katsu, Norihei Miki, Mikko Tsubouchi, Takeshi Kato, Fujio Harumoto, Sachiko Kobayashi, Sonosuke Sawamura, Gen Kimura

“I don’t know who sent you, but you only get one life. You should guard it more carefully.” – Zatoichi

There have been many faces to the blind samurai Zatoichi we have seen thus far. Zatoichi, the antihero. Zatoichi, the blamed. Zatoichi, the savior. Zatoichi, the father. Yet, Zatoichi’s Revenge showcases a rather new aspect for our lovable and overtly deadly protagonist: Zatoichi, the feminist. Now back in 1965 I’m sure that word didn’t have the meaning as it does today and I’m not here to get all political or stand on some sort of social soapbox – but again, it’s simply a new facet to the multitalented franchise and one that shows just how remarkable this series is in its tenth entry. And while Revenge lacks a bit of the emotional punch as some of the better films, the combination of thoughtful pacing, strong visuals, and well-written characters makes it one of the stronger entries.

The continually wandering Zatoichi (Shintaro Katsu) comes across one of his old homes, a town where he learned his massage trade from a kind old teacher. When he finds out that his old master has been killed and that his daughter has been sold into prostitution, Zatoichi uncovers a political and yakuza scheme that will have him on the run and fighting for the lives of a plethora of wrongfully indebted young women.

It's a trap!
When it comes down to it, Zatoichi’s Revenge is more or less another entry into the long running series. It follows the basic formula we have seen established by now with Zatoichi stumbling into a town full of injustice and having to draw his cane sword in defense of oppressed. At this point there is not a whole lot of surprises to be had, outside of perhaps his now standardized duel with a corrupt ronin occurring to kick off the third act instead of closing it, and Revenge sits comfortably for fans of the franchise. What does sell this film as one of the better entries is the strong execution from the director and in the writing.

Following the trend to be less grindhouse and more classic samurai film that the last few entries harkened back towards, Revenge layers on a more serious approach to the proceedings and director Akira Inoue. Inoue frames every shot as its meant to be a picture and his love of creating depth and layering elements by placing objects or people close and/or in front of the action on screen makes each moment a rather intriguing visual spectacle. This leads to some of the franchise’s more memorable moments like a running shot where Zatoichi rips through an entire ally in chase of two of the villains cutting down thugs left and right and it crafts the rather formulaic approach as something fresh.

The baddies are outnumbered.
This is blended with some fun and thoughtful writing that embraces Zatoichi as a simple, but overly clever hero. The title Zatoichi’s Revenge might indicate a more emotional and personal plight against the villains, but outside of the initial set up the film plays it a bit safer than that instead focusing on how the baddies try to frame Zatoichi into their own game. This does allow for Zatoichi to team up with a humorous dice thrower to help him on his way, a character that adds an intriguing father/daughter subtext that works with the main plot’s ‘daughter of his master being wrongfully sold into prostitution.’ While it is not quite the father/son dynamic we last saw in Adventures of Zatoichi, it’s a nice addition to the regularly paint-by-numbers plot of the film.

Zatoichi’s Revenge might not be one of the most daring films for this franchise as it plays it relatively safe with the plot and style, but the execution of the script and visuals makes it rise above its own limits in many ways. Director Inoue delivers a film that feels fresh despite its formulaic approach and the continued strong work by Katsu and the supporting actors makes this entry one of my favorites. This one definitely comes highly recommended. 

Written By Matt Reifschneider

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Wrong Turn 6: Last Resort (2014)

Director: Valeri Milev
Notable Cast: Anthony Ilott, Chris Jarvis, Aqueela Zoll, Sadie Katz

Sometimes franchises happen for the most unexpected films. Had you asked me if The Fast and the Furious would have spawned six sequels when I saw in theaters ages ago, I would have laughed in your face. I feel the same way about Wrong Turn. Don’t get me wrong as the first one was a decent slasher gem and the second one is a grindhouse tongue in cheek blast, but after that the quality of the films tank hard. In fact, they are bad enough that I gave this sixth entry, needlessly subtitled Last Resort, a two out of five…and it was a substantial improvement over the last three sequels. At this point though, you know whether or not Wrong Turn 6 is the film for you so quality isn’t probably a huge issue.

When Danny (Ilott) and his girlfriend Toni (Zoll) are summoned by Danny’s long lost birth family to come inherit a retreat in West Virginia, they decide to check it out. Bringing out a loud of generic siblings and friends (read: fodder for the slaughter), they arrive only to find the massive resort being run by two creepy caretakers (Jarvis and Katz). What are the true intentions of this inheritance and how is it connected with the three vicious deformed killers in the woods?

Even if they die, they just keep coming back to make me review this shit.
Truthfully, if you go into Wrong Turn 6 looking for a relevant plot then, buddy, you took a wrong turn into the wrong franchise. At this point, the inconsistency of continuity between the sequels is laughable at best as long as you don’t think too hard about it. Wrong Turn 6 does try to make a rather memorable plot with its weird ‘welcome to the family’ kind of twist, but it’s continued adherence to slasher tropes certainly makes it about as predictable as possible. Wrong Turn 6 is boobs, blood, and butchery. That’s the essentials of its plot. Even then, outside of what seems like a lot of sex in this entry, the kills are rarely memorable and the special effects are decent at best.

I would be lying if I said that I wasn’t somewhat excited that Declan O’Brien would not be directing this latest entry. If anything, it was work of franchise newcomer Valeri Milev that injects a bit of new energy into this franchise. Not that the woods of Bulgeria (where this was filmed) look anything like the woods of West Virginia, but it seems like Milev is doing the best he can with what little substance he has in the script. In fact, there is a sequence with a monologue about deer hunting where Danny is bow hunting in the woods that is cut together with the death of a local sheriff that is probably one of the best scenes that this franchise has seen in decades. So it has that going for it.

Hold on! Let me take her place!
Other than that though, Wrong Turn 6 remains a generic and formulaic entry into a long buried franchise. Sure it’s a step up in quality thanks to Milev and some fun supporting performances (Katz and Jarvis seem to be having a lot of fun with their roles), but it is nothing to get overly excited about. I mean, it’s still the sixth entry of a slasher hillbilly franchise. So it’s not like I had a lot of hopes going into it to begin with. You either know if you want this in your collection or not before you see it.

Written By Matt Reifschneider

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Dead Snow 2: Red Vs Dead (2014)

Director: Tommy Wirkola
Notable Cast: Vegar Hoel, Orjan Gamst, Martin Starr, Jocelyn DeBoer, Ingrid Baas, Stig Frode Henriksen, Hallvard Holmen, Kristoffer Joner, Amrita Acharia, Derek Mears

The horror comedy genre owes big portions of its success to the groundbreaking work from both Sam Raimi and Peter Jackson (pre-Lord of the Rings). Their influence is a massive part of the material that Tommy Wirkola has put out in his career thus far. The first Dead Snow very obviously nodded to Raimi with its slap stick violence and atmospheric visuals, for example. For the sequel however, Wirkola digs up enough gore, humor, and over the top violence to kick it into the Peter Jackson homage territory. A move that not only makes a film that is funnier and gorier than the first, but one that just might be better.

Martin (Hoel) has barely survived the ordeal on the mountain against the army of undead Nazis, but a car wreck on his way down has left him hospitalized and under suspicion when no one believes that zombies killed his friends. That’s the least of his worries though after he finds out the doctors attached the zombie arm of the villainous leader Herzog (Gamst) onto his body and that the evil Nazis are on there way down from the mountain. With the help of some new friends from the Zombie Squad and a bit of supernatural strength from his new arm, Martin is going to have to take on an entire army…dead or alive.

"Look at all of those funny kills to come..."
The films of Tommy Wirkola certainly take a specific ‘taste’ from the viewer to enjoy. If you don’t find humor in horrible deaths, gratuitous gore, and non-stop violence then you might as well back off. If, however, you do find some humor in the vein of Evil Dead 2 or Dead Alive, sit back and prepare for the laughter in slaughter because Dead Snow 2 is going to hit all the right buttons.

The film is set to a lightning pace. It starts off right after the events of the first film as zombies attack Martin’s car on the way off of the mountain and rarely does the film stop from there. While the first film took time to set up characters and atmosphere, Dead Snow 2 assumes you’ve seen the first one and keeps it moving at full speed from there. Sure, there’s a bit of story here or there as they add a few new characters to the mix, like the bumbling nerds of the Zombie Squad complete with Star Wars quotes or the arrogant police chief out to capture Martin, but it mostly happens at a full run…which adds to the frantic fun of the film.

He had to be 'axed' a question.
At the pace that Dead Snow 2 moves, the resulting blend of humor and gore has to keep up and Wirkola and company are more than inspired for the task. Whether it’s the intentionally ridiculous slap stick violence of Martin’s slave zombie who continually perishes and comes back to life or the intense reign of terror that Herzog and his zombies inflict on the villages they storm through with their tank, all of the proceedings blend humor and horror with relative ease so that even when something relatively terrible happens…it’s hilarious. The gore effects are top notch and the film takes an almost action like turn in the final act that’s punctuated with phenomenal stunts. There is a sequence where Herzog throws Martin through the ceiling of a house and he comes back down to roll down a flight of stairs. It might be one of the best stunts I’ve seen this year.

Heads up.
While some might not like Dead Snow 2 as much for its lacking ‘pure horror’ elements that the first film contained, there is so much fun to be had with the humor and high paced antics of Martin, the massive zombie riots, and general destruction of people that rarely did I have time to really compare it until it was done. It does take a certain taste of humor and horror to enjoy the film, but with its strong executions and relentless pacing it’s hard not to recommend this to everyone. 

Written By Matt Reifschneider

Sunday, November 16, 2014

6 Bullets (2012)

Director: Ernie Barbarash
Notable Cast: Jean-Claude Van Damme, Joe Flanigan, Anna-Louise Plowman, Charlotte Beaumont, Kristopher Van Varenberg, Bianca Van Varenberg, Steve Nicolson, Uriel Emil Pollack, Louis Dempsey, Mark Lewis

The later years of Van Damme’s career are fascinating in many ways. An action star more associated with his off screen antics in the 90s and his cheesy films has seemingly found redemption in the last decade. Whether it be one of the more defining roles as the villain in Expendables 2 or the meta performance delivered in JCVD, the Muscles from Brussels has turned a leaf. Even in a low budget action thriller like 6 Bullets, Van Damme seems intent on adding that extra layer of ‘lost soul’ to a rather by-the-numbers flick. It works very well for him. Partnered with another solid directorial effort from Ernie Barbarash and a solid enough script, 6 Bullets ends up being a rather surprising thriller that had me hooked.

After his arrogance leaves a handful of innocents dead from his mistakes, an ex-mercenary turned detective for hire Samson Gaul (Van Damme) decides to give up his life to find a simpler one as a butcher. When a couple of American tourists lose their daughter to a people traffickers he decides to step back in for one last shot at redemption…and he might ignite a bigger fight than he was expecting.

More like spin kicking in the rain. Am I right?
I’m not trying to say that 6 Bullets is some kind of Oscar worthy film that no one understands. It has its issues, particularly when it comes to its obvious budget and some of the mediocre acting. All I’m saying is that for a straight to home video action thriller affair, 6 Bullets is easily a mark above the regular fodder in the game. It plays its action sequences more for impact of characters than for entertainment (which may deter some fans) and focuses more on the thriller elements. In fact, the opening action set piece that features Van Damme slashing and dashing his way through a brothel and then igniting all the cars in the parking lot with balls of flame might be interpreted as ‘old school Van Damme.’ Which is all the more reflected by his character’s remorse for that style of thinking as he becomes consumed with redeeming himself from his brash past in thoughtful and meaningful choices. Might be an indicator in itself for Jean-Claude about the entire Damme career if you think about it too much.

Not that 6 Bullets is a full on thinking man’s thriller. It follows a decently predictable path of twists and surprises that most fans familiar with the genre will be able to dictate by just reading the synopsis. It does touch on some decent fun here and there (is his friend in the police force a rat?!) with some fun secondary performances. Van Damme’s son, who has now been featured in quite a few of his more recent flicks, struggles a bit here and there but does a fine job in the end and the missing child’s parents seem to be a bit too knowledgeable in violence to be wholly believable. Like I said, it’s not winning any Oscars.

"Do you have time to talk about bringing Van Damme into your life?"
6 Bullets is just a fun film that does an admirable job at justifying some of its dramatic moments for a budget bin kind of flick. The action bits are well shot, the tension is upright to get the job done, and the film generates a solid role for Van Damme. I’m really starting to think that director Ernie Barbarash is a guy to really get behind when it comes to straight to home video action. 6 Bullets is just more proof of that.

Written By Matt Reifschneider 

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

14 Blades (2014)

Director: Daniel Lee
Notable Cast: Donnie Yen, Wei Zhao, Chun Wu, Kate Tsui, Sammo Hung

Sometimes being a foreign film fan can be a test of patience. For whatever reason, Donnie Yen has had a handful of films simply sit on the shelf for a US release and it makes fans a bit anxious. One of those was the pretty phenomenal The Lost Bladesman. The other one is the mixed results of 14 Blades, which, ironically, is the one of the two that finally saw a release here in the US. I had mixed feelings going into 14 Blades, particularly with Daniel Lee at the helm, and after the fact I feel even more torn. On one hand it’s an entertaining enough wuxia action flick, but on the other hand it’s utterly underwhelming with its predictable plot and often over zealous attempts at being epic – which is too often Daniel Lee’s calling card.

When the leader of a secret military unit Qinlong (Donnie Yen) is betrayed over the theft of a royal seal, he must dig into the mystery to uncover a larger conspiracy from royals in the Ming Dynasty. With the help of a delivery service team and rogue thieves, he will have to right all of the wrongs of his past and come to terms with his future.

That's one. 13 to go.
Initially, I was hesitant to even touch 14 Blades thanks to Daniel Lee. For as many films as he gets to direct over in Hong Kong, you would think that his style would grow on me. It still hasn’t. He handles action sequences as though he attempts at making every shot a statement of ‘oh man, that’s so cool’ versus thoughtfully looking at pacing and relevance to film as a whole. 14 Blades is guilty of all of his normal sins. Terrible CGI plagues many of the bigger moments, he overly relies on slow motion for pacing, and his ridiculous over the top moments are less jaw dropping as much as they are giggle inducing. A vicious witch like villain in the film plays out more like a final boss level in a video game with her tactics of floating, spinning, and undressing (?) which makes it unintentionally funny. What could have been a fun repeated battle between our anti-hero and the main antagonist plays out too silly and too overzealous in its attempts to be ‘cool looking.’ It’s a maneuver that bleeds too often into the rest of the film.

Normally, the fantasy elements and over the top epic attempts in storytelling wouldn’t bother me all that much. It’s a fucking wuxia film after all. Yet, the almost comic bookish way that 14 Blades is told repeatedly undermines the better elements. Donnie Yen as an anti-hero with a box of fourteen blades on his back? Wish I cared more about him so I gave two shits about his plight. A romantic subplot with the charming Wei Zhao? Wish there was more chemistry. A slew of quirky secondary cast including the scene stealing Chun Wu as a master thief? Wish they had more screen time to take away from the wooden romantic plot and predictable main story. It’s as if 14 Blades really wants to be a magnificent wuxia film with all of the right pieces. Too bad none of those pieces are nearly as awesome as they would read on paper or fit together in a flowing narrative.

Oh look, a pirate.
14 Blades is a film that entertains enough with some of its charming supporting cast and a decent enough performance from Donnie Yen, but the lacking cohesive flow, silly CGI riddled action set pieces, and over eager attempts at looking awesome make for a film that lacks the depth and execution to be one of the better modern wuxia films. Fans of Daniel Lee or Donnie Yen will probably still want to add this to their collection for various reasons, but those with a pickier taste in their foreign action cinema may want to hunt down and import a copy of The Lost Bladesman instead.

Written By Matt Reifschneider

Sunday, November 9, 2014

Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954)

Director: Jack Arnold
Notable Cast: Richard Carlson, Julie Adams, Richard Denning, Antonio Moreno

The classic Universal monsters of the 30s, 40s, and 50s have lasted a long time. Characters like Dracula, Frankenstein’s monster, and the Wolf Man have long endured decades of fans and spoofs. Yet, my personal favorite of the these iconic creatures is perhaps the most overlooked in many ways: the Creature from the Black Lagoon. While he was a bit late to the party, particularly notable as the last before the big boom of science fiction in the 50s, the first film of his shorter franchise is still a universally effective piece of cinema. The Creature from the Black Lagoon isn’t all that original, especially when compared to the themes and structure of its inspiration King Kong, but the combination of Jack Arnold’s knack for simplistic narrative and focus on thrilling moments makes it one of the best that Universal ever released.

It’s the scientific discovery of the decade, a small group of scientists have found a unique fossil in the Amazon. It’s the remnants of a fish man and one that could forever change the landscape of evolution. A small expedition lead by Dr. Reed (Carlson), his girlfriend Kay (Adams), and his boss Dr. Williams (Denning) are off to find the rest of the skeleton. What they find in the Black Lagoon though may be less dead than they thought and eager to interact with them.

"Wait, this log is in the wrong spot!"
While Creature from the Black Lagoon used the ‘beauty and the beast’ classic narrative and a 3D underwater gimmick to attract its audience, the film has held up remarkably well 60 years (!) after its release in 1954. A good portion of the universal aspect has to do with the continued relevance of its themes and message. Comparable to the before mentioned similarities to King Kong, Creature runs a message about the human nature to destroy what is around us in the name of science. This is depicted in many ways, but most notably it’s the extents that our ‘heroes’ in the film go to capture the Gillman before realizing that for each of their mistakes the Gillman’s own reaction further places them in danger. The invasion of his sacred time capsule in the lagoon, the poisoning of the water in attempts to capture him, and the introduction of an element that garners his attention: a beautiful woman. This creates an antagonist that is less of an antagonist and more of a physical reaction to man’s arrogance and ignorance to his own world. It crafts a monster that is merely a reflection of the scientists’ own egotism that succumbs to being a tragic figure in the big picture – one that simply doesn’t understand what is happening before being targeted for destruction.

The themes are amplified by the classic nature of the film’s execution on screen. While Julie Adams doesn’t play a whole lot more than a damsel in distress with one hell of a scream (it was still the 1950s), the rest of the cast adds some nice layers to the film. Intriguingly enough, this was the era where scientists became heroes more than mad villains and Creature does an admirably job portraying the two kinds of scientists that would work on screen: the thoughtful caring scientist (Carlson) and the brash, arrogant one (Denning) to add to the dramatic element on the boat. The setting might be small, most of this film takes place on a boat, but Jack Arnold ably blends the lush scenery, the claustrophobic space of the boat, and the suffocating underwater sequences to give the film quite the pacing. By the time you hit the third act and the audience realizes (with the characters) that the only way out is by going into the water, you’re tense with them.

Creature from the Black Lagoon is then punctuated, audibly with only a three note monster sound cue that’s used repeatedly, by a titular character. Crafted with shocking detail in scales and gill movement and given a unique life by two very talented actors in the suit (Ricou Browning does an marvelous job with giving the Gillman a unique swimming presence in the water sequences that includes the iconic ‘mirroring’ mid morning swim underneath a naive Kay), the not-so-villainous monster of the film is utterly memorable in look and presence. Just seeing his webbed hand curiously reach from the water towards an unknowing ankle becomes memorable and well pieced together.

While Dracula, Frankenstein’s monster, and The Wolf Man might get most of the attention from the Universal catalog, I would continue to argue that the Gillman and his first foray onto the silver screen still ranks as one of the best ‘creature features’ ever made. The execution is top notch combination of 50s science fiction and older horror flicks and the continued relevance of its themes 60 years later make it iconic. Creature from the Black Lagoon is classic for all the right reasons.

Written By Matt Reifschneider

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

John Wick (2014)

Directors: David Leitch, Chad Stahelski
Notable Cast: Keanu Reeves, Michael Nyqvist, Alfie Allen, Willem Dafoe, Dean Winters, Adrianne Palicki, Daniel Bernhardt, John Lequizamo, Ian McShane, Lance Reddick

We’re fans of Keanu Reeves over at Blood Brothers. His contributions to genre film making as an actor (The Matrix, Speed) and as a director (Man of Tai Chi) are significant enough not to ignore, even if his acting can be less than inspired at times. Yet, I was inherently drawn to John Wick right from the start. After it ignited quite a bit of positive buzz on initial screenings, I was ecstatic to see the film. Now that I have seen it, I have to admit that John Wick lived up to all of my high expectations and then some. It’s simple, vicious, dark, and charming. Not to mention one of the most entertainingly violent movies I have seen all year. Seriously. It’s damn near Russian mob genocide onscreen. It’s just awesome.

John Wick (Reeves) is a simple man. After his wife falls ill and succumbs to the sickness, he is left with little in his life to love: his car and a young puppy that his wife left him on her deathbed. When a young Russian mobster breaks into his house, steals his car, and kills his dog, John Wick is left with only one option – to revert back to his old ways as an unstoppable killing machine.

It's going to be a dog day afternoon.
John Wick is the kind of film that purely knows what it is, both as a throwback film and as a statement to move action movies back to the core of what made them so enjoyable to begin with. Directed by two stunt guys (who are both trained stuntmen and fight choreographers), John Wick keeps it simple with the plot and characters to give us the excess of style and the visuals. Keanu Reeves is not an actor with a massive range and John Wick plays up that fact to make this his best acting performance in decades. The character of John Wick is a myth. He is a stone-faced killer where emotion only slips through in minute moments and the film spends a pretty substantial amount of time building that up in the first half. It also builds up just enough back-story (via montage) to make the audience understand (even if it seems petty on surface level) what the titular character is going to unleash in the second half of the film. While the idea of Russian mobsters killing a puppy and stealing your car might seem petty to some, we understand through subtle moments from Reeves and in the narrative that this is a man who does not care about a lot. When you take those from him, he will bring the fucking apocalypse to your front door.

This is NOT a style over substance film though. In fact, the two blend impressively well. It just so happens that the substance is inherently molded into the style, a move that was perhaps best known in the late 80s and early 90s through the works of John Woo. Directors David Leitch and Chad Stahelski create a relatively simply and intriguingly fascinating universe that the film resides in. Rarely does John Wick spend justifying its quirky world where gold coins are used as assassin currency, an endless supply of half wit thugs line every corridor, and there exists a hotel where high paid killers can mingle without the burden of work influence. This isn’t an origin story for John Wick. If you don’t buy in, get out. Partnered with a deep visual style of neo noir neon lights and deep black shadows, John Wick is as visually appealing as it is straightforward in its narrative; a move that only enhances the richness of its simplicity. It’s a bare bones kind of film, but those bones are rarely broken by sticks, stones, or whatever one may have to say.

While the film itself is rather minimalist when it comes to its characters and plot, there is one thing that is excessive about John Wick: the action. Coming from stuntmen directors, I had high hopes for the action in the film and even in this element the film exceeds expectation. The influence of John Woo, beyond just the storytelling narrative, is massive here as the action piles upon itself in the second half delivering everything from martial arts grappling to gun fu to a car battle. That’s right. Not a car chase. A car battle. The violence is palpable in its delivery (there are so many head shots that trying to count them seems to be a task only for the most die hard of internet fans) and the relentless pacing of each action set piece in the latter portions of the film reach a fever pitch. Keanu Reeves seems up for the task in the film as the ‘bullet ballets’ and fighting continue to grow exponentially even if the highlight of the action comes from a vicious one man raid on a night club in the mid portion of the film.

A deadly weapon...with a gun.

For action fans, John Wick is not only a throwback to the golden age of beatdowns and bullet wounds, but it’s played with such artful skill that it’s hard not to love it through and through. One part neo noir, one part ‘heroic bloodshed,’ and one part early 80s Charles Bronson revenge thriller, John Wick is the best action flick of the year if not the best since The Raid. You owe yourself a favor to leap into the myth of John Wick.

Written By Matt Reifschneider

Saturday, November 1, 2014

Iceman (2014)

Director: Law Wing-cheung
Notable Cast: Donnie Yen, Wang Baoqiang, Huang Shengyi, Simon Yam, Yu Kang, Lam Suet

When Iceman was first announced as a vehicle for Donnie Yen, I was stoked. I mean, the film is still a remake of one of my favorite martial arts flicks in the 1989 Yuen Biao flick Iceman Cometh (you can read my very favorable review of that film HERE), but it’s a story that could use a facelift and the combination of Donnie Yen, physical comedian Wang Baoqiang, and director Law Wing-cheung certainly had my attention. The original one was a film that caked on humor, heart, and charm to achieve it’s goals. Iceman, unfortunately, features none of these traits. In fact, it might be one of the biggest disappointments of 2014.

He Ying (Donnie Yen) is a royal bodyguard in the Ming Dynasty, but when he is framed for treason against the Emperor while transporting a supposed time traveling device he is caught in an avalanche with his pursuers. In present day, he is found frozen and an accident leaves him unthawed in a world he doesn’t understand. With the help of a young escort, He Ying decides its time to rectify his past by finding the time machine and setting things right.

Yen is shackled by more than just wood and chains in the movie.
Iceman is a film that’s half thawed. While the original played up some fun ‘fish out of water’ humor, focused on the love story, and boiled its action down to massive stunt sequences and classic 80s Hong Kong combat, Iceman forgets to do any of these things. The romantic subplot is there, but it’s rarely effective or thought out as the chemistry between our two leads is sputtering at best, the villains of the film are less villains and more or less comedic antagonists (which I am sure will be played up in the eventual second film as a twist on the story - more on that in a second), and the action to plagued by terrible CGI. For a fun concept, I spent more time meandering through the awkwardness of the narrative and horrified at the massive amount of special effects than enjoying the film as a light hearted action flick. It’s almost like no one involved in Iceman knew what the hell they were doing. So they decided to just throw a bunch of things in there together to see if it would work. It doesn’t.

As if the failed execution on hand isn’t bad enough, they decide to throw in more plot to complicate the narrative even more. The addition of a mysterious Simon Yam as a corrupt businessman who seems to want something from our lackadaisical hero needlessly complicates the film throughout and the twist at the end really doesn’t make any sense for this portion of the film. The charm of the original one was its back to basics approach. Why make this one so damn confusing?

Now I understand that this is only one part of a two part film. As was reported during the filming, the inflated budget of Iceman made filmmakers split the film into two parts and perhaps once I see the second part more of this film will a) make sense or b) feel complete. As is though, Iceman ends on an awkward note with its messy storytelling and still fails to find any sort of thoughtful execution to the action, characters, or plot. If I'm dedicated two hours of my life to this I still want some sort of fulfillment.

I appreciate that this character shows almost no emotion towards his new time era. It's awkward.
As is, Iceman is a massive missed opportunity. With all of the talent involved, one would think that there would at least be an entertaining film to be found in Iceman, but alas it’s mostly just uncomfortable. Donnie Yen seemingly forces his way to charm through his 2D character, his supporting cast seems to be battling the terrible CGI action set pieces and their own poorly scripted scenes, and the narrative is sporadic at best. Somebody better put Iceman 2 back in the microwave because this first film is not cooked through. Perhaps then we will get a filling meal out of this deal.

BONUS RANT: How can a film featuring Donnie Yen not feature a kung fu fight sequence until well over an hour into the film? I mean, that’s just poor thinking right there.

Written By Matt Reifschneider

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Wer (2014)

Director: William Brent Bell
Notable Cast: AJ Cook, Simon Quarterman, Sebastian Roche, Vik Sahay, Brian Scott O’Connor

The werewolf genre of horror has never truly been one of my favorites. Too often it’s too much of the same with too little of the inspiration that crafted the long running monster of lore. One thing is for sure, but Wer is not simply more of the same. In many ways, I appreciate the entire concept behind the film and its massive genre leaping. It’s a very adventurous film in that sense. It also happens to suffer from its attempts at being too different from the norm particularly when it comes to its limited budget and weaker script. Sure, there is something to be admired with Wer, but it just doesn’t quite make the cut in the end.

When an American family is brutally slaughtered in the woods of rural France, the police arrest a massive man as a suspect in the murders. A young lawyer (Cook) along with her information guy (Sahay) and her ex/animal expert (Quarterman) are set to represent the odd Frenchman. During their research into his case though, they will find that he might not be what they thought he was…if human at all.

"I see a bad moon rising."
The first half of Wer plays out more like an episode of Law & Order than it does your normal horror film. It’s here that director/writer Bell sets up the basic premise of ‘werewolves’ in the real world where he establishes a realistic tone for the film. It plays out like a court drama, albeit with fairly generic characters and a generally eye rolling ex-girlfriend/boyfriend dilemma for needless drama down the road, and visually he sticks to an almost found footage look for the film. This Michael Mann inspired gritty look doesn’t do the film a lot of favors in the end, especially since it comes off as irritating more often than not, and it takes the audience out of the moment. Otherwise, it does make for a decently intriguing idea about giving scientific reasoning to lycanthrope issues…even if most of it plays like bullshit.

Wer takes its time setting up the idea in the first half and while the execution is hit or miss, I was digging the concept. Which is why it’s somewhat baffling when the film takes a drastic change for the second half. Here the film decides to abandon the Law & Order concept, realism, and subtle details to become an action film. Yes, you read that right. A fucking action film. Not to give too much away (it’s hard not to when the film is pretty predictable overall), but the film goes for a high octane Fugitive-esque chase sequence that features a ton of terrible CGI gore and violence and abandons damn near all of the intriguing elements of the first half for spooks and beat downs. Don’t misunderstand me, I love action films, but this change is rather sudden and awkward compared to what the first half of the film.

Hold on. He's got this.
I can see where people might like the irrationality of Wer. It sure is a ballsy move to whip from one genre to another particularly in the saturated generic formula of the werewolf film. For this reviewer though, a few more drafts to tighten up some of the moves, dialogue, and characters would have done the film wonders. Not to mention a larger budget for the poor CGI gore in the end and the gritty hand held look of the film. If I were to grade the film I would give it an ‘A’ for effort, but a ‘C’ for execution. Despite my enjoyment of the idea, the execution just didn’t do it for me. That doesn’t mean it won’t do it for you though.

Written By Matt Reifschneider

Saturday, October 25, 2014

Honeymoon (2014)

Director: Leigh Janiak
Notable Cast: Rose Leslie, Harry Treadaway

It’s no secret to those whom follow my writing that I sincerely love a great atmospheric horror film. Too often, particularly in this day and age, horror films would rather go for the gore or the jump scares rather than build the tension to sell the horror to begin with. This is not the case with Honeymoon. In fact, this is a slow burn kind of horror film that requires its audience to be fully invested in the details and small nuances for the payoff to work. Thusly, it’s not a film for everyone. For those willing to leap into the rather simple, but inherently effective, creepy atmosphere and bewildering minutiae then Honeymoon is going to rank up as one of the best of the year.

Paul (Treadaway) and Bea (Leslie) finally took the leap and got married. To celebrate, they plan to have their honeymoon in a remote family cabin in the woods so that they can be alone to really celebrate their union. When Paul finds Bea wandering the woods late one night, their honeymoon takes a twist for the weird as Paul starts to wonder: what happened to Bea?

We can work this out.
Honeymoon is driven by atmosphere and detail. Not that the film doesn’t go for the gag reflex in the final act as the ‘why’ for all the ‘what the hells’ starts to unveil itself, which I will get to in a bit, but the true highlight of this horror flick is most certainly the first two acts. Starting off with some hand recorded footage of their wedding day where our two leads (and essentially only actors in the film) unveil some quirky anecdotes about themselves and their life together, Honeymoon goes for the character over plot path that really sells the film. Pay close attention to the dialogue and details of the first two acts because its these details that make the film so unnerving as it starts to roll out. This dialogue and subtle plot progression is really hit home by some surprisingly solid performances from the two leads. Both Treadaway and Leslie feel very real as you see the obvious young love crumble underneath the unusual elements of the film and it knocks it home with its creepy aspects.

For the third act though, the film does shift gears into more of a body horror flick. The change flows well enough that it doesn’t feel out of place, but for those who loved the atmosphere of the first two acts the change might be a gruesome one that doesn’t sit as well with you. For this reviewer, it was a shift that needed to happen to really take the film to the next level that it needed to go. The gore is very realistic and very unnerving (particularly because it tends to hit a few buttons that would make any person so has been in a committed relationship uneasy) and even though the final twist might come off as a bit eye rolling, the natural progression of the film from atmosphere to pure horror works beautifully.

Brought to you by "oh shit, what the hell is that?!"
Honeymoon is not a wholly easy film to consume. Two thirds of the film is slow burn atmosphere, which may lose a lot of the younger modern audience, but the final act is nightmarish and grisly which might put off those against some of the shock elements. For this horror fan, the blend was impressively accomplished in all the right balances that are driven by a director who knows the value of tension and uneasy moments and finished off with some stellar performances. Honeymoon is not the easiest film to love, but it’s hard not to appreciate the detail work that went into igniting this indie flick. 

Written By Matt Reifschneider

Monday, October 20, 2014

Kundo: Age of the Rampant (2014)

Director: Yun Jong-bin
Notable Cast: Ha Jung-woo, Kang Dong-won, Lee Sung-min, Ma Dong-seok

Going into Kundo: Age of the Rampant, I was expecting something like a kung fu Robin Hood sort of flick. I have yet to see any other film from the commercially acclaimed South Korean director Yun Jong-bin (although I have heard that Nameless Gangster is phenomenal) and thusly much of my expectations were based on the basic synopsis you’ll read below this. Boy, was I wrong. Kundo is so much more than just another Robin Hood knock off. In fact, that comparison can only really be made based on the synopsis. What Kundo actually reflects is a wide variety of genres and style, mixed together with brutal precision and executed in a massively entertaining and impactful manner.

It’s the late 1800s and the Joseon Dynasty has fallen into the greedy hands of the upper elite, forcing many of the villagers and farmers on desperate times. A young butcher (Ha Jung-woo) loses his sister and mother at the hands of a corrupt and militaristic rising star in the noble ranks (Kang Dong-won). He is rescued by a rogue band of thieves who aim to restore justice to the area, setting into motion events that will bring the two opposing forces into a bloody battle.

Bamboo forests: a staple of these films.
While the film might indicate something more grand on the scale of Red Cliff or the like, truthfully Kundo plays out in a much more basic manner, albeit painted with plenty of detailing and genre bending to make the proceeding film far from feeling rehashed. On one hand it owes much of its structure and narrative to Hong Kong wuxia films. A young man hell bent on revenge joins with a clan of talented fighters to oppose unjust corruption? Hell, even much of the sword play fits right into that dramatic visual storytelling of newer wuxia films, in particular a massive dazzling display of choreography and directorial flair in an ambush sequence set in a foggy ravine.

Yet the characters are far less ridiculous and eccentric as a wuxia normally plays out. Our hero is ably portrayed by the talented Ha Jung-woo (who’s little neck twitch was the perfect touch to complete his brazen cleaver wielding thief) and a phenomenal secondary cast including a strong man, an acrobatic mute, a snarky archer, and their fearless and knowledgable leader, whom often steals each scene, to balance it out. The humor pops up here and there in the secondary characters and it lightens up the mood just enough to prevent the ‘right versus wrong’ morality and revenge narrative from being too heavy. Kundo is littered with this compelling characters.

I have to admit that despite some phenomenal acting and some very impressive action set pieces, the MVP of Kundo happens to be the detailed and often tragic villain of the film. Kang Dong-won adds such depth and gray matter to a rather normally dastardly villain that for a good portion of the film, I was wondering if he might actually become a redemptive character and one who finds the path of the righteous through his characters’ fear and anger. Not to give anything away for how the film ends, but his character arc blossoms into one of the defining bright spots of an already stellar film. It was enough that I had to give that actor and his portrayal their own paragraph in a short length review. It’s impressive to say the least.

Showing off some skillz.
Kundo does occasionally suffer from a sticky structure (that in the first third relies on a narrator to keep the audience caught up in the historical context of the film) and there are some intriguing samurai/western motifs that pop up that may not always sit well with the casual film audience, but the film is so impressively executed onscreen and in its storytelling that rarely did it bother me like it should have. In a year where there have been plenty of pleasant surprises in the action genre, the dramatic beats and refreshing genre bending of Kundo shoots this film to being on the best of the year. Powered on the slashing swords of anti-heroes and the weight of social morality, Kundo is a must see film for all cinephiles. Robin Hood, eat your peppy heart out. 

Written By Matt Reifschneider

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Leprechaun: Origins (2014)

Director: Zach Lipovsky
Notable Cast: Dylan “Hornswoggle” Postl, Stephanie Bennett, Teach Grant, Bruce Blain, Adam Boys, Andrew Dunbar, Brendan Fletcher, Melissa Roxburgh, Emilie Ullerup

Take it for what it is, but the Leprechaun franchise earned its weight in gold by being more entertaining than good as each additional entry eclipsed the previous in outrageousness. When the decision came through to reboot the long running horror series I can’t say I entirely blame them particularly when the second Leprechaun in the Hood flick came out. That being said, Leprechaun: Origins might actually be the worst film in the entire run. For every element that was ‘so bad, it’s good’ in the previous entries, Origins is ‘so bad, I cry myself to sleep at night.’ Seriously though, what happened?

Two couples on tour of Ireland decide it’s their best interest to listen to a few locals in a small village about seeing the Stones of the Gods on the outskirts of town. The locals are even kind enough to put them up for a night in a remote cabin for the night to limit their trek. Unfortunately, there just so happens to be a hungry and pissed off leprechaun in the area ready to devour them. Talk about un-luck of the Irish.

I'd be hard pressed to remember the name for any of the characters.
In many ways, I get the idea of moving this reboot into more serious territory. By the end of the first round of Leprechaun films, it was all joke and no horror. A move back to the horror roots isn’t a fully bad decision. What was a bad decision was making it WAY too serious. For a film about a small village that sacrifices tourists to a man eating leprechaun, you have to give the audience a little room for fun. There is no fun to be found in Origins though. To make things even worse, the film is so utterly uninspired in how it goes about its tale that not only did I predict the entire film 15 minutes in, it didn’t even carry the execution to make it worth my time blurting out loud what was going to happen. There was only one kill in the film worth it as a horror flick and the rest of the ‘chase’ was boring, repetitive, and lacking any kind of tension to keep my attention. I may or may not have decided to do laundry about an hour into the film.

Yet the biggest mistake that Origins makes is that it moves the franchise from a supernatural slasher into creature feature territory. One of the big calls in the marketing was that it would be WWE star Hornswoggle’s time to star as the titular Leprechaun. Not that I know who he was previous to this film, but I sure as hell have no idea who he is after it. Looking like the bastardized child of the X-Files’ Flukie the Fluke Worm Man and a chimpanzee (I think that’s what it looks like, the director does an amicable job at never letting us see or even feel the overdrawn presence of the titular monster with blurred cameras and relentless editing), the Leprechaun sort of shambles around with Predator heat vision – oh yes, it can even see handprints! – and snatches gold before attacking its prey like an animal. So really, this has nothing in common with the entries previous.

Shit, he's a dentist too?
Outside of one kill in the film, Leprechaun: Origins has nothing good going for it. It’s cliché, misses out on its monster movie opportunities, stumbles around with no relatable or intriguing human protagonists, and then proceeds to have no fun with its concept. In fact, the movie takes itself so damn seriously that when our main heroine spouts off “Fuck you, Lucky Charms,” in reference to one of the best one liners from the franchise, I was borderline offended.

Somebody call Warwick Davis back. I’ll take a second Leprechaun in Space film now.

Written By Matt Reifschneider

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Sacrament, The (2014)

Director: Ti West
Notable Cast: AJ Bowen, Joe Swanberg, Amy Seimetz, Kentucker Audley, Gene Jones

Ti West is the kind of director that splits his audience a bit with his style. Some claim him a hack for his lacking substance to his films, others claim him a genius for his atmospheric and slow burn approach. Technically, I don’t fit into either category. I quite enjoy his throwback approach to film and his dense camera work and subtle plots, but really it’s nothing wholly original. When The Sacrament was announced I was excited, particularly with Eli Roth’s name attached as a producer, but the fact that it would be a found footage flick scared me a bit. Luckily, The Sacrament easily handles the stylistic approach with ease and ultimately reveals one of the creepiest and unnerving films of the year.

A small documentary company called Vice, featuring host Sam (Bowen) and cameraman Jake (Swanberg), has just had an interesting opportunity land in their lap. A friend (Audley) just received a letter from his sister Caroline (Seimetz) to have him come visit her in a secret compound where she has been living in recuperation from her addictions. It’s an opportunity for them to dig into a religious cult and see just what keeps people there. What they find though may surprise even the most cynical of detractors.

Can we start filming or what?
The Sacrament never seems to hide the fact that it is based (loosely, if you will) on some of the real life cult occurrences that consumed news throughout the last handful of decades. To its benefit, it uses it as ground to really build its ‘realism’ which is only accentuated by the documentary style of the film. Instead of a detriment to the film, the found footage actually adds to the entire experience. It gives it a real time sense of eerie atmosphere that just makes it feel that much more real.

Never did I feel scared in the film, like so many horror films attempt to accomplish, but West and company instead opt for that unnerving realistic factor which is executed in spades. In addition to the found footage and realistic plot just mentioned, I have to admit that it was the acting that had me hooked. AJ Bowen and Joe Swanberg handle the narrative with soft hands, never really forcing much of the subject matter in the script, so that when the finale comes about in all of its horrifying glory it packs one hell of a punch. To make it even more impactful, the ‘Father’ of this compound is enigmatically charismatic on screen and promptly eats the basic dialogue he is given. Actor Gene Jones simply owns in the role and it adds to the experience.

"Let me just out act everyone in this movie, okay?"
The Sacrament isn’t going to be a film for everyone as it certainly has that slow burn Ti West style to how it goes about its plot. At its core, it’s basic in the writing and even more basic in the premise. However, the execution is superb. The characters are all relatable, the situation unnerving, and the film magnetic. Definitely one of my favorites of the year.

Written By Matt Reifschneider