Sunday, January 12, 2020

Ip Man 4: The Finale (2019)

Director: Wilson Yip
Notable Cast: Donnie Yen, Wu Yue, Vanness Wu, Scott Adkins, Kent Cheng, Danny Chan, Chris Collins, Ngo Ka-nin, Vanda Margraf, Jim Liu, Lo Mang

Of the last decade and change, there have been a few action franchises that have stood out as defining of the time period. One of them was the surprise international success of the Ip Man franchise. It exploded the careers of director Wilson Yip and actor Donnie Yen while at the same time injecting a fresh dose of energy into the traditional martial arts film all around the world. It’s a series near and dear to my heart, so when it was announced that Ip Man 4 would be the last, it comes with a sense of sadness on its finality. While the film certainly cements itself as the last of the “official” series (good luck stopping the ongoing Ipsploitation subgenre though) there is a lot of fascinating approaches to the film that make it feels like this series still has a lot to say, even if the end result of this entry is more muddled than the rest. Ip Man 4: The Finale will deliver on the basics that fans have come to expect, through action and heart, but it’s some of the wild new elements that make this one such a fascinating end to the series.

Underwater (2020)

Directed by: William Eubank
Notable cast: Kristen Stewart, Vincent Cassel, TJ Miller, Jessica Henwick

Underwater is a fascinating movie to try and review critically. In a lot of ways, it’s a deeply problematic script and a movie out of time, but it’s also handled very deftly with supreme direction, acting, and cinematography. It’s a disaster movie and creature feature all smashed into what is ultimately a harrowing, breakneck couple of hours at the theater.

The streamlined plot starts with Norah, very adroitly played by Kristen Stewart (who I normally like anyway, but is notably acting a step up from her normal “Prozac” energy level) in a deep-sea control platform for a nearby giant drill. This is a sci-fi concept, and deeply a sci-fi movie, in equal measure to its horror and it is a big pill to swallow early on. If you decide you’re along for this ride from here, however, it doesn’t ask for a much deeper suspension of disbelief, as the station inevitably starts buckling, collapsing and imploding under the unimaginable pressure. From here, Underwater is in nearly all ways a disaster movie and is internally consistent throughout. The stakes and danger are made immediately clear as she gathers other survivors and they face things like having to walk in really cool looking futuristic pressure suits on the seafloor, and the film is very explicit about what happens if the suit fails. Everything is collapsing behind them, driving the characters and plot ever forward as they head to the drill itself, in hopes of finding functioning escape pods.

Saturday, January 11, 2020

Depraved (2019)

Director: Larry Fessenden
Notable Cast: David Call, Alex Breaux, Joshua Leonard, Ana Kayne, Maria Dizzia, Chloe Levine, Owen Campbell

Iconic indie filmmaker Larry Fessenden had always wanted to make a modern Frankenstein film (or so I've heard) and after seeing his latest, Depraved, it's a wonder why it never got off of the ground until this point.  In general, Depraved is a brilliant modern rendition of the Frankenstein lore. It takes all of the themes of the classic horror and science fiction tale and spins it to resonate with current social and political elements - never in a way that bombards its audience with agendas or messages, but in a brilliant way to show just how universal (pun intended) the story remains.

Friday, January 3, 2020

The Grudge (2020)

Director: Nicolas Pesce
Notable Cast: Andrea Riseborough, Demian Bichir, John Cho, Betty Gilpin, Lin Shaye, Frankie Faison, Jacki Weaver, William Sadler, Tara Westwood, David Lawrence Brown, Zoe Fish

There’s a moment in The Grudge where a loving husband and father-to-be real estate agent, played by the vastly underrated John Cho, hesitates outside of the cursed house at the center of the film. Nothing in particular is there, no ghosts or sinister shadows. He looks around at the semi-desolate street in front of the characteristically part gothic home and begrudgingly moves to go in. It’s moments like these, caressed in the heavyweight of an existential dread knowing something is wrong with no clear indicator to what, which makes The Grudge franchise so timeless. It’s a franchise that is fairly well known around the world. It took Japan by storm with a variety of series from TV to reboots, but a 2004 remake starring Sarah Michelle Gellar, produced by Ghost House (Sam Raimi and his crew), and directed by the original writer/director Takashi Shimizu is what many people in America will remember. Yes, that remake had a couple of ill crafted sequels that hardly capitalized on the tone indicated in the scene above, but the series has lived on nonetheless.

The Gallows: Act II (2019)

Directors: Travis Cluff, Chris Lofing
Notable Cast: Ema Horvath, Chris Milligan, Brittany Falardeau

It was only back in 2015 that The Gallows solidified how much that found footage horror needed to slow down as a trend to be re-evaluated by more creative forces. It was a film that, in my humble opinion, represented essentially everything wrong with the sub-genre. It was thinly scripted and simply goes through the motions of its style and narrative. Nothing fresh. It was, worst of all, boring. Imagine my feelings when the trailer for a suddenly revealed sequel, The Gallows Act II, ended up in my feed online. Considering how The Gallows only cost $100K and ended up grossing $40 million plus, it wasn’t a reach. I’m a self-proclaimed franchise fanatic so it was only going to end up seeing the film, but I wasn’t fuckin’ happy about it. Truthfully, it could only be better, right? Where else can a franchise go but up when it starts off by hanging at the end of its own noose? It better go up. If it doesn’t, woof.

Sunday, December 29, 2019

Two Evil Eyes (1990)

Directors: George A. Romero, Dario Argento
Notable Cast: Adrienne Barbeau, Ramy Zada, Bingo O’Malley, Harvey Keitel, Madeleine Potter, John Amos, Sally Kirkland, Kim Hunter, Tom Atkins

As a horror fan, there a few things I’m a sucker for. Well, it’s a lot of things. For the sake of this review, it’s necessary to know four of them: Edgar Allen Poe, George Romero, Dario Argento, and anthologies. Combining these four pieces into one film should be a recipe for success. Going into Two Evil Eyes, that’s the mindset I adopted. Particularly when Blue Underground gives the film some incredibly lavish treatment in this latest 3-Disc Blu Ray set. It’s something of a shame that it’s a film that I haven’t seen until this point, if anything for the four reasons above, but lukewarm reactions from a lot of my cinephile friends created hesitation in me to leap into the film. Maybe the idea of it is better than the actual product.

Apprentice to Murder (1988)

Director: Ralph L. Thomas
Notable Cast: Donald Sutherland, Chad Lowe, Mia Sara, Knut Husebo, Rutanya Alda, Eddie Jones, Mark Burton, Adrian Sparks, Tiger Haynes, Minnie Gentry

The use of the ‘based on true events’ gimmick is such a wild card that it’s hard to predict what it actually means for a film. In the case of Apprentice to Murder, it’s a signifier that the film is going to ride its melodrama pretty hard. The film had a decent amount of hype around it for me, thanks to be somewhat of a rare film prior to the new Arrow Video Blu Ray release, but now that it’s in my collection, it’s understandable why the film went by the wayside without much of a murmur. Apprentice to Murder is forgettable. It certainly has its merits, particularly in how the film handles its performances and many of its subplots. On the whole though, perhaps it’s not so surprising that it was a film that fell off of the path of mainstream classics and into the ditch where cult cinema fans would find it.

Sunday, December 22, 2019

Malevolence Trilogy (Malevolence, Bereavement, Malevolence 3: Killer) (2004, 2010, 2018)

By 2004, the end of the post-Scream slasher resurgence was finally coming to an end. Although that is a heavily debated era of horror by fans and critics alike, its end spelled some good things to come for horror. Namely, it allowed the slasher genre to take a step back from the limelight and go back underground where it could find some creative forces. When the first Malevolence film premiered at the end of 2004 (although it did not receive a home video release until the next year – which is where I discovered the film) it was one of the films that marked that shift in style. It found enough of a cult audience that director/writer/producer Stevan Mena was able to finish off his trilogy of films, even against some horrific circumstances that had the third film postponed almost indefinitely. The trilogy has now found its way onto Blu Ray and it’s a welcome addition to any horror fan’s collection. This piece will cover all three films – a weird gap in our catalog admittedly since I sang the praises of the films since 2005 and hopefully, it will spur a few people to take a chance on this remarkably fascinating franchise.

Tuesday, December 17, 2019

Black Christmas (2019)

Directed by: Sophia Takal
Notable cast: Imogen Poots, Aleyse Shannon, Lily Donahue, Cary Elwes

Remakes are always a tricky business. I say this as one who’s generally more favorable to them than most. In theory, you have to serve the twin masters of appeasing the original fans and thrilling new ones or focus on one or the other, often alienating the unserved audience. There are certainly decent examples of all three and terrible examples as well, but it is a conflict all remakes share. The new version of Black Christmas largely focuses on the “thrilling new take” angle, and I think that it may have unlocked the true potential of this story’s concept, while admittedly walking into a few pitfalls of the genre as well.

Maintaining the basic conceit of sorority girls staying on campus during the holiday season and then being taunted by phone, stalked, and killed, it’s the only real callback to either previous version of this story. The original Black Christmas was very much an exploration of the “killer is calling from within the house” campfire story archetype, while this new one is a pure slasher focused through a lens of modern feminism. I think there are a lot of good ideas in play, although I do think the narrative fails the concept here.

Sunday, December 15, 2019

Toys Are Not for Children (1972)

Director: Stanley H. Brassloff
Notable Cast: Marcia Forbes, Harlan Cary Poe, Evelyn Kingsley, Luis Arroyo, Fran Warren, Peter Lightstone, Tiberia Mitri

Cult cinema provides a variety of surprises lying under the docile surface of what generally looks like calm waters. Even the most mundane of genres can pop with something impactful and strange once a person starts dragging the waters to find what’s beneath. Toys Are Not for Children is one of those odd films that can be dredged up from the depths. Taking what could have translated into a more serious and abrasive adult drama concept from a relatively exploitative baseline, the film has a raw and occasionally dream-like quality that adds a surprising amount of style to its low budget. The film struggles to find a cohesion of tone and the messages are blurred, albeit intentionally so at times, but the overall experience of what is brought to the surface here is evocative and gets the mind thinking – even if it stumbles through some of it.

Thursday, November 28, 2019

The Leg Fighters (1980)

Director: Lee Tso-Nam
Notable Cast: Ha Kwong-Li, Dorian Tan Tao-Liang, Wang Hsieh, Tsai Hung, Peng Kang, Sun Jung-Chi, Shih Ting-Ken, Chin Lung
Also known as: The Invincible Kung Fu Legs

The last few years has seen a significant uptick in the amount and quality of proper releases for martial arts films from the golden age of the genre. For fans, like myself, it’s about time. Living in the realms of bootlegs and poor-quality editions, getting restored home video releases of so many overlooked classics is a miracle. When it was announced that the fan favorite The Leg Fighters was getting a coveted Blu Ray release through a new label, Pearl River, I was shocked. Most of the proper HK and martial arts releases were from the major two studios, Shaw Brothers and Golden Harvest, and the others have been buried to questionable DVDs and dubbed/VHS rips on the Wu Tang Collection via YouTube. In fact, prior to this release, I had only seen a dubbed low-quality version of this film. Needless to say, the fact that this film even exists in this format for the US means its worth buying for all fans of the genre.

An American Werewolf in London (1981)

Director: John Landis
Notable Cast: David Naughton, Griffin Dunne, Jenny Agutter, John Woodvine, Brian Glover

Writing about An American Werewolf in London is a daunting task. There are a slew of other writers and film critics who have analyzed the film from beginning to end for its cultural relevance, the strength of execution, and its ability to weave genres and, truthfully, most of them are smarter than I am. Nonetheless, I was tasked with the insurmountable task of reviewing the new Arrow Video Blu Ray release of the film and, thus, it’s time to wear my shoes and hike this mountain. To say that An American Werewolf in London is an American cinematic classic is a bit of an understatement. It’s a film that has lasted the test of time with its strange and off-kilter blend of horror and humor, but it might be most remembered for how it helped to modernize the werewolf genre along with the other big werewolf film in 1981 – The Howling.

Tuesday, November 26, 2019

The Ring Collection (2019)

It was only a few years ago I wrote a piece at Blood Brothers about the relevancy of the Ring franchise for horror. At the time there was two new films due for release, the wildly entertaining Sadako vs Kayoko and the less-said-the-better American sequel, Rings. Now, it’s time to take a look at the franchise once again, not just because we are going another new film – Sadako, which sees the return of Hideo Nakata to the director’s chair, but because Arrow Video has done everyone a huge favor. They just released a phenomenal box set with new HD restorations of the first four Japanese and any fans of the films, cinema collectors, or even newbies will want to pick up this set and dig into its gold mine of contents.

It should be noted that the American release of this set is the same one as the UK one from last year, although the titles have been slightly changed to reflect the silly US titling which is Ringu and not Ring. I will continue to use the term Ring through this piece because, quite frankly, the name Ringu is stupid. Fortunately, my opinion on that seems to be backed fairly heavily on the special features of this set so at least there’s that.

Friday, November 15, 2019

The Prey (1983)

Director: Edwin Brown
Notable Cast: Debbie Thureson, Steve Bond, Lori Lethin, Robert Wald, Gayle Gannes, Phillip Wenckus, Jackson Bostwick, Jackie Coogan

There isn’t a lot that one can expect from the slasher genre if we are being truly honest with ourselves. If a film has depth, a unique character perspective, or style, it’s already sliding into the upper echelon of what is to be expected. When broken down, there is only one real thing that I want to see from a slasher – entertainment. The formula isn’t rocket science, but the film, good or bad, just needs to be entertaining to some degree. Of course, that’s exactly what The Prey lacks. Normally, if Arrow Video is going to go to the effort and deliver a release like this filled with a new restoration, tons of special features, and a great package – you assume the film is probably some sort of lost gem. The Prey is not one.

Sunday, November 10, 2019

Doctor Sleep (2019)

Directed by: Mike Flanagan
Notable cast: Ewan McGregor, Rebecca Ferguson, Kyliegh Curran, Cliff Curtis

Doctor Sleep has all the ingredients to be either an unmitigated disaster or an unambiguous victory. Positioning itself as a follow-up to both the book and filmic versions of The Shining while having to tell its own, largely unrelated story. That’s a lot of juggling for any film, but add to the metaphor that two of those flying balls are hand grenades, and I mean that in the sense that director Mike Flanagan has to show proper reverence to two masters.

The Shining, as a book, is on the shortlist of absolute Stephen King masterpieces and is unambiguously supernatural in its telling. There is no question that the ghosts that Jack Torrence sees are literal, and the whole thing, although thematically and metaphorically about addiction, is real and is really happening. The Shining, as a film, is on the shortlist of greatest films ever made period, directed by a man who never produced a single dud and is nothing but ambiguous about everything in its telling. Focused almost exclusively with Jack Nicholson’s far less hinged and sympathetic take on Torrence, this movie is an exploration of abuse, isolation and madness, while maintaining the theme of addiction. Suffice it to say, King famously loathes the adaptation, which is the final wrinkle in what makes the concept of a Doctor Sleep movie so wild.

Saturday, November 9, 2019

Telluride Horror Show 2019: Daniel Isn't Real (2019)

Director: Adam Egypt Mortimer
Notable Cast: Miles Robbins, Patrick Schwarzenegger, Sasha Lane, Chukwudi Iwuji, Mary Stuart Masterson

At this point, while the term ‘elevated horror’ is making the rounds, I feel like we should address the latest trend of ‘neon horror.’ Can we make that a thing? The Neon Demon, Mandy, Bliss, and a dozen other films have all come out in the last few years that utilize throwback aesthetics like heavy synth scores, saturated neon lighting, and throwback visuals. Well, regardless if anyone else is going to use the term, I am. More or less because this is exactly where Daniel Isn’t Real falls into. Surrealistic horror with an old school approach to the visuals, but a modern approach to the narrative. While I adore all of the films mentioned above (that’s also just horror – let’s not even get started on the neon elements of John Wick and how that has affected action cinema) Daniel Isn’t Real handily belongs to that group. It’s a manic ride through the urban setting of its youth culture, slyly integrating social and moral commentaries into a film that increasingly feels more Clive Barker-esque as it unravels. It’s enigmatic, engaging, and most fittingly – entertaining. Not only will this end up being one of the best horror films of the year, it could very well find itself on the best films of the year list.

The problematic part about reviewing a film like Daniel Isn’t Real is that the film leans so heavily on the experiential portion of connecting with its audience that, to truly talk about why this film works, it would spoil so much of its plotting and character beats. It’s a fuckin’ great problem to have. The start of the film features the protagonist, Luke (played later by a character-defining performance from Miles Robbins,) as a kid who is revealed to be from a rather volatile home life. When he sees the aftermath of a vicious mass shooting on the street, his imaginary friend Daniel first appears. Although Daniel allows him to cope with his situation and give him a friend to talk to, Daniel eventually starts to push Luke in some problematic ways and with that, and the help of his mother, he locks Daniel away. Fast forward to Luke as a college student where his life is perpetually disappointing and, in an attempt to free his imagination and work on his own mental state, he unleashes Daniel once again.

A large part of Daniel Isn’t Real feels like it’s meant to be the Fight Club for the next generation. Many of the same concepts remain including the use of an imaginary friend of extreme toxic masculinity, an undercurrent subtext about mental instability, and a fantasy-like sense of style. It just handles those themes and weighty ideas in a different manner. Daniel Isn’t Real isn’t much for replicating the films its pulling influence from, but it certainly takes some of the better qualities and mixes them together with its own sense of identity. The concoction is intoxicating.

 Director Adam Egypt Mortimer comes out all guns blazing on this sophomore effort too. As mentioned previously, there is a visual style to the film that encompasses both modern and throwback values. The use of synth scores, the neon caked lighting, and the growing existential surrealism of Luke’s descent and rise against his imaginary friend give the film immense amounts of tone and atmosphere. With the stellar performances, including a career-defining high for both Miles Robbins and a truly fascinating turn for Patrick Schwarzenegger, the film rarely has a weak spot to think of and even the romantic subplot, given some very palpable energy by the chemistry between Robbins and Sasha Lane, is well integrated into the main conflict of the story.

To go much further would undermine the experience of watching Daniel Isn’t Real and although there are a few reveals in the second half that felt like they needed a bit more exploration at times, the well-executed and intriguing film that is delivered remains one of the best this year. It’s unnerving, it approaches the anxieties of modern youth in a fascinating way, and the execution is top-notch. Daniel might not be real, but the quality of this film is.

Written By Matt Reifschneider

Saturday, November 2, 2019

Telluride Horror Show 2019: Sweetheart (2019)

Director: JD Dillard
Notable Cast: Kiersey Clemons, Emory Cohen, Hanna Mangan Lawrence, Benedict Samuel

As cinema continues to become more expensive for patrons to go to the theaters, the general clamor for bigger and more spectacular entertainment only becomes stronger. There are certainly counterpoints to this movement, but the percentage of films of a more intimate or smaller scale are quicker and quicker to be bumped from a wide release and onto streaming platforms. This is a trend that certainly ignites quite a few debates, but it’s a trend that is only becoming more prevalent as time passes. On the other hand, there’s a slew of great smaller and more intimate films that are still being made to help level out the playing field. Although I was fortunate enough to have the chance to see Sweetheart on the big screen via the Telluride Horror Show, this is a film that Blumhouse understandably sent to the smaller screen. It’s a fantastic film for what it is, but it doesn’t necessarily match the buzz and bluster that theatrical going audiences would want to visit in a wide theatrical release.

Countdown (2019)

Director: Justin Dec
Notable cast: Elizabeth Lail, Jordan Calloway, Talitha Eliana Bateman, PJ Byrne

Horror is an interesting genre to be a specific fan of. It tends to have the least studio oversight owing to lower overall budgets. This has been used to phenomenal effect over the years telling bigger, more insightful stories than you’d assume its plot allows. Hereditary and it’s exploration of family dynamics and legacy, Babadook and it’s exploration of mental health, The Shining and whatever interpretation is popular at the time. On the other hand, this can go the other way as well. With low budgets and low expectations come the people who see horror as low hanging fruit. A quick buck to be made, since they only have to be interesting enough to get comparatively few butts in seats to be profitable, and even if they’re not, they can license the movie out to several streaming services. The bottom line is they will make money, by and large, so they can be low effort.

I’m not trying to brush this lower effort class of film with a broad, universally terrible brush, because that wouldn’t be strictly fair. There are flashes of real ideas in these sometimes. I’m not saying Countdown is one of these better than it should be movies, quite the opposite actually, but I am trying to highlight that I believe there was potential, and perhaps potential in the future, because the idea here is actually pretty cool. In theory.

Monday, October 28, 2019

Legend of the Demon Cat (2017/2019)

Director: Chen Kaige
Notable Cast: Huang Xuan, Shota Sometani, Kitty Zhang, Qin Hao, Hiroshi Abe, Keiko Matsuzaka, Liu Haoran, Oho Ou, Zhang Tianai, Zhang Luyi

When the trailer for Legend of the Demon Cat originally dropped, there was a skepticism that came with it. The film looked to be a strange tonal balance, genre-hopping moment to moment and coming off as more of a gimmick than expected. Of course, this is something of a normal thing for Chinese cinema. When the film started garnering some awards attention, especially from the Asian Film Awards, my interest immediately piqued. Naturally, that excitement faded as the release of the film gestated for a long time before its US release from Well Go USA.  With its Blu Ray release now on store shelves, there is going to be an interesting reaction to Legend of the Demon Cat. It’s a bold classic fantasy tale Chinese mythology, ripe with mystery and some truly poignant imagery, but it’s also a film that often does not pander to more casual film fans. It’s an emotionally powered story first and foremost and will, in a shocking way, actively lean away from its genre conventions. For that choice, the film deserves a lot of respect, even if it ends up being more of a drama with fantasy elements than vice versa. 

Thursday, October 24, 2019

Gemini Man (2019)

Director: Ang Lee
Notable Cast: Will Smith, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Clive Owen, Benedict Wong

There are a couple of angles from which to view Gemini Man. As a film, obviously, but also as a technological feat. An average film is shot in, and subsequently released in, 24 – 29 frames per second, with television being shot on video, traditionally, at closer to 60 frames per second. There are both technical and budgetary reasons for this, but that’s beside the point I’m driving at. The point is that this is why soap operas have that “soap opera look” or why motion smoothing on your TV makes movies looks weird (motion smoothing effectively doubles the frame rate of whatever you’re watching), you’re literally seeing twice as much visual information per second. However, what’s interesting is that these numbers are arbitrary. There were technical reasons at some point in history, for all of this of course, that we consider the ‘look’ of a film is 24 frames per second. It’s now ingrained at a near “cultural memory” level. Recently, there is a group of filmmakers that really focused in on where the numbers were technically arbitrary and have been pushing ultra-high frame rates. Peter Jackson’s Hobbit trilogy was shot in 48fps, for a notable example. Gemini Man is shot at 120 frames per second.