Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Blood+ ep. 1-50 (2005)

Let's get this party started!
Yello my friends! I finally did it. After about a month of dedication, I was able to complete the epic episode watching adventure known as "Blood+". Or as I like to call it, John's personal 100 year war. This battle began in 2005 and finally reached its end in July 2014. Alright so it wasn't quite 100 yrs, but man it felt like it at times. Let me explain. You see back in 2005 I was working part time at a Suncoast Video store, remember those? Life was swell then. Anyways at that time I was only able to see a few episodes of the "new" vampire series from "Blood the Last Vampire." After the first views I was sold, I mean who couldn't use more Saya in their life? Well as life does so often, it threw me a few curve balls and I had to put Saya in the corner for awhile. Then a few months back I noticed that my friends at Netflix had "Blood+" just sitting in my queue waiting for me to revisit Saya once again.  Several hours and 50 episodes later we danced our last dance or so I thought. More on this later, for now let us get to the review of "Blood+"

Synopsis - Inspired by "Blood the Last Vampire," "Blood+" is its own entity. While there are a few basic elements from the original movie "Blood+" should be looked at completely differently. For one the main character Saya has the name of the character but is far different from the original Saya. The basics of this story are pretty simple really. Saya, the main character of the series, is a seemingly normal 16 yr old girl. Living with her adoptive family and suffering from amnesia she slowly starts to get bits and pieces of her memory back. After an attack on her by a chiropteran Saya learns she is the only one that can stop these creatures. Armed with her special/badass katana, Saya sets out to find the truth about her past and these creatures.

While the series is set in 2005, her story starts many years before. Through her visions and memories we get to see the whole story unfold.

Can I get some theme music Haji?

Review - The thing with a series as lengthy as "Blood +" is you have to assume there will be many filler episodes. Truth be told I never really got that vibe here. I think there is so much story within the main story going on that it was easy for the writers to actual be able to stay the course and put out a quality product. With the original source material leaving a lot of people wanting more here in "Blood +" we are given 50 episodes or 2 seasons to really have the story come together. With that I feel like it was ultimately a solid piece of orchestrated goodness. I can walk away with a satisfaction that the story is complete and my love affair with Saya has come to an end.

On to the animation/ artwork, in a word: beautiful! 50 solid looking episodes with crisp colors and lots of blood shed. The action scenes are top of the line and with so much of the series being action it was good not to grow tired of it. I feel that the choreography is better than a lot of things done nowadays it definitely stands the test of time. Or at least 9 years worth.

Now for the characters. With a series this size and the depth of the story, character development is a must in my opinion. For me this is one thing that really hits home, it can make or break a series. Usually with a shorter anime series I tend to be a little more forgiving in this area. Thankfully with "Blood +" I didn't have to worry about this. Character development is one of the strongest things going for it.
From the main character to every side character, each person was given their due. In my humble opinion this is one of the most complete series that I have had the pleasure of viewing. It is truly amazing to see how the relationships are formed and the connections the chevaliers have with their masters. Devotion at its fullest.
One last dance
 Final thoughts - It took one hell of a journey for me to finally complete my mission with Saya. Now what? I know that there is another series out called "Blood C" and truth be told I will wait on it. It was a fun, blood splattering good time with "Blood +" and I really want to savor the series for awhile. I don't need no rebound series! I can honestly say this is a solid fun adventure filled with a great story and characters. If you do not fall in love with the characters from this series well I would be surprised.  Don't hesitate to check it out on Netflix or buy a copy below. With that said I will give "Blood +" an outstanding:
 Written By John Price

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (2014)

Director: Matt Reeves
Notable Cast: Andy Serkis, Jason Clarke, Gary Oldman, Toby Kebbell, Keri Russell, Kodi Smit-McPhee

The Planet of the Apes franchise has had its ups and downs over the decades. Just the original series couldn’t seem to find consistency through five films and the first attempted remake by Tim Burton saw the series lose almost all of its social commentary for a more action oriented flick with off putting humor. Luckily, the latest reboot of the series (starting with 2011’s phenomenal Rise of the Planet of the Apes) put the franchise right back on track. Despite my high expectations for the Matt Reeves’ helmed follow-up Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, this latest entry into the long running science fiction series is even better. In fact, it’s one of the best. It’s a film that, like the original, has strength and universality in its script along with perfect execution in the approach. Not only is it one of the best films of the series. It’s the best film of the year thus far.

The Simian Flu has almost wiped out humanity. The aggressive tactics of the human race trying to restrain it pushed then further towards oblivion. It’s been ten years now and Caesar (Serkis) has established a nice little colony of intelligent apes in the forests of California. When a group of humans attempt to restore power to their city with a dam near Caesar’s colony, the thoughtful ruler with have to navigate a fine line between forces that seem destined to send them to war.

A hairy situation...
The key to a great summer blockbuster like Dawn is balance: a balance between characters, balance between plot and action, balance of intelligence and entertainment, and a balance tension and relief. Dawn not only succeeds at this precarious balancing act, but delivers above and beyond on all of the elements while doing so. For all the big films this summer (and this year), Dawn is perhaps the best and most well rounded film I’ve seen.

Most of the film’s success starts with the writing. Rise was a film that was able to notably blend science fiction entertainment with heart and some strong social subtext. Dawn is the natural progression of that. It’s more entertaining, filled with bigger emotional beats, and a more aggressive subtext. The story is mostly told from the ape perspective with Caesar and his clan consuming an admirable amount of screen time as opposed to their human counterparts. Themes of loyalty, family, and trust run heavy in the character interactions and emotional beats as the film focuses on really fleshing out the foundational emotion of the science fiction built plot. It’s a ballsy move by the film to give so much depth to a slew of computer-animated characters (although the mocap here is phenomenal and both Serkis and Kebbel probably deserve Oscar nods for their portrayals of the apes), but Dawn succeeds here. Never have I felt an emotional connection to CGI in a film like I did here. It’s more than impressive.

While the plot might serve to hit some pretty basic formula’s overall, the execution of these beats is top notch. When the film needs an impactful moment, Serkis delivers. When it needs tension and suspense, Reeves slathers it on with strong visual pops including an exceptional hide and seek moment when the human leader is trying to take some surgical supplies out of a building that’s ape occupied.  When the film kicks into action mode in the last act building to Caesar’s return…the special effects amaze. Through and through, Dawn simply comes through and delivers the goods.

Ah... the friendly headbutt.
Say what you will about the Planet of the Apes franchise and whether you like it or not, but Dawn of the Planet of the Apes establishes a new watermark for the series. The balance is perfect. It’s thoughtful in all aspects of its execution in writing, visuals, and depth. All I was left with by the end of the film was a need for more…for which I’ll have to wait a couple of years to get when the next entry debuts.

Written By Matt Reifschneider

Monday, July 14, 2014

Suspect, The (2014)

Director: Won Shin-yun
Notable Cast: Gong Yoo, Cho Hee-soon, Jo Seong-ha, Kim Sung-kyun

It’s fairly impressive that a film franchise like Bourne, despite initial doubts towards its success, would have changed the action landscape so much in the last decade. Whether those changes are good or bad is debatable depending on how you like your action direction. For me, it was a downgrade. The ‘kinetic’ camera work and relentless editing has butchered a lot of what made a great action sequence great in my opinion, but it’s a style that has latched on for mainstream audiences and it doesn’t seem to be going away any time soon. So why the hell am I talking about Bourne in a review for a South Korean action thriller like The Suspect? Well, this strong espionage flick is basically the Korean version of Bourne and while that might sway certain film fans one way or the other, it’s a film that’s definitely worth watching.

Dong-chul (Gong Yoo) has retired as much as he could. A highly trained one man killing machine for North Korea, after his family was killed he defected to the South and spends his days living a simple life as a personal driver and looking for the man who killed his family. When his employer ends up six feet deep, he’s the first one to blame for the crime. Now he must uncover the truth of a larger conspiracy in play.

Light in the dark...
Don’t misunderstand me, I had to grit my teeth through a lot of the directorial choices that Won Shin-yun used for his replication of Paul “Shaky McShakerton” Greengrass’ spastic action shooting. Luckily, I was pretty well prepared for it heading into the film so it wasn’t a massive determent towards my enjoyment of the film. Just take note that, this is the kind of film that utilizes this ‘in the moment’ high octane editing, rapid zooms, and vibrating screen.

Outside of that choice by Won Shin-yun, The Suspect is a great fucking spy flick. The film doesn’t necessarily break a lot of new ground with comparisons to the Bourne franchise repeating throughout, but the execution of the twisting plot and semi-ridiculous characters is top notch entertainment. Gong Yoo excels at the soft-spoken-but-ass-kicking hero here (complete with plenty of flash backs to various events that lead him to be who he is), but the real treat might come from Cho Hee-soon as the disgruntled military agent tasked with hunting down our hero. While his character tends to be a little cartoonish at times, he plays it with such vigor and a hint of depth that he steals damn near every scene he is in. Both of these men are surrounding by top notch secondary characters that really flesh out the entire experience.

The plot might get really ridiculous and spy cultured at times(Microfiche? Did someone just pull out a microfiche plot twist?!), but it kept me on the edge of my seat through and through. Not to mention that Won Shin-yun pummels the film with action to keep it from getting too plot heavy. It was expected that the film would have some great cat and mouse chase sequences (two car chases really punctuate this aspect), but I was mostly surprised with the stunningly well placed and choreographed hand to hand combat pieces. While the editing and shooting might have taken a lot out of action for me, I appreciate just how well these bits of martial arts worked into the plot. I’m always down for some great fist-to-cuffs in a film and The Suspect delivers.

Here's pointing at you, sir.
If you are willing to overlook the entire stylistic action choices for The Suspect, then this espionage film will entertain the hell out of you. It’s massively charismatic in the characters and plot and the film breaks for nothing in the relentless pace. The Suspect might not be perfect (the editing still grates me), but it’s otherwise a damn near perfect action thriller.

Written By Matt Reifschneider

Friday, July 11, 2014

Snowpiercer (2014)

Director: Bong Joon-ho
Notable Cast: Chris Evans, Song Kang-ho, Ko Ah-Sung, John Hurt, Tilda Swinton, Jamie Bell, Octavia Spencer, Ed Harris

Snowpiercer is the kind of film that defies many conventions. It’s a multinational film, although it truly has its heart built from South Korean film making, and in many ways it’s destined to be an instant cult classic. With a major American star in the lead, an action packed pacing, and some almost gimmicky plot progressions, one would think that this would be a prime film for the summer block buster season. Yet, it was crushed down to appearing in arthouse US cinemas almost a year after its South Korean debut. After experiencing the film, it actually makes sense. Despite being one of the best films of the year and knocking my proverbial socks off, I’m not sure a mainstream American audience could have handled a film like this.

In the not-so-distant future, the world has become a glacial and uninhabitable place ruined by human reaction. Only a never-ending train continues to support life on Earth, self-sustained and ever moving. For Curtis (Evans), it is both a blessing and a curse. Living in the tail end of the train and forced to consume protein blocks while pushing through overcrowded poverty, he pines to bring his people up to the front of the train to live with the wealthy. So he begins to plan. With the help of some determined individuals and an imprisoned security specialist (Song Kang-ho), he plans to take the engine.

Director Bong Joon-ho has always been in my peripheral vision for his fantastic monster flick The Host, but Snowpiercer is taking his work to the next level. Channeling his inner Terry Gilliam, Bong Joon-ho tackles a very high concept science fiction action tale (based on a French graphic novel) with ridiculously high energy and strong focus. At first the entire concept is a little hard to swallow, showcasing a blend of fantasy and science fiction to get the plot progressions across to build this intriguing world of the future where current worldly concerns rear their ugly head, but if you are willing to dive headfirst into the somewhat extreme context then there’s no way you are getting out without consuming the film as quickly as possible.

From there, Snowpiercer enlists a slew of memorable and quirky characters to inhabit the strange setting. Evans is dynamic in the lead role as a torn man pushing for equality for everyone on the train and he balances out the rather mysterious and off beat Korean duo that he enlists to help him on his quest. The film is littered with these great characters. From the wacky schoolteacher to Edgar the eager young activist or the two silent hit men killers sent to stop the rebellion, Snowpiercer is brilliantly built on strong characters and brilliant performances.

I mentioned previously that the mainstream American film going audience might find Snowpiercer hard to swallow. Not only is the concept impressively deep with political and social concepts that’s wrapped in science fiction fantasy with damn near everything symbolic with a separate meaning, but the film genre-bends at a wicked pacing. The film is a decently paced action flick in many regards, utilizing Bong Joon-ho’s talents for energy and spectacle that’s slathered in some pretty brutal violence at times, but it’s also quite the satire. This is where the true Terry Gilliam comparisons arise (not to mention having Gilliam regular John Hurt in the film playing a character named Gilliam). The audience I was with was uncertain whether to be shocked, disgusted, or laughing through most of the movie – a school house portion of the film flickers between disturbing and hilarious – and that was at an arthouse cinema. I’m guessing between the political subtext of the symbolism and the off beat humor, the Weinstein Company knew that the mainstream American audience wouldn’t quite buy in. I might have broken Korean box office records, but unless you’re a film fanatic with an open mind it might be a tough one to digest.

"Looks clean to me, sir."
All in all though, Snowpiercer knocked my block off. It was high brow entertainment at it’s best, blending humor, action, and science fiction fantasy into a one-two punch that could knock out most film scholars. Lead by a strong cast of relatable characters in a situation that’s both gimmicky and relevant, Snowpiercer is great and ferocious genre cinema that comes only with the highest recommendation.

 Written By Matt Reifschneider

Monday, July 7, 2014

Planet of the Apes (1968)

Director: Franklin J. Schaffner
Notable Cast: Charlton Heston, Roddy McDowall, Kim Hunter, Maurice Evans, Linda Harrison

From the time I was a little boy, the original Planet of the Apes always fascinated me. It was a combination of big concept entertainment, cheese, and it had great special effects. I mean apes with guns who rode horses? How cool was that?! As time has gone on though, the depth of this film and the impeccable commentary that was buried in the entertainment and often-cheesy performance from Charlton Heston has wormed its way to the surface of my understanding. Planet of the Apes is the kind of film I enjoy now just as much as I did as when I was a kid, but now for different reasons.

A long journey into the depths of space has left a small group of astronauts thousands of years into the future. Lead by their rough edged captain Taylor (Heston) their ship crashes onto a planet where the air is breathable, but survival seems rough. Particularly when they find out that humans on this planet are treated like animals by the more intelligent and developed species…apes.

Our eclectic heroes.
As I mentioned in my introduction, the brilliance of Planet of the Apes lies in the layers of the film. Sure, guys in costumes parading about on horses living in a society where man is lower rung on the evolutionary ladder is fun to watch as a 60s science fiction flick with its quirky soundtrack and smarmy performance from Heston. Yet the film does an admirable job at really digging into the material. With a script co-written by one of the greatest science fiction writers of all time (the brilliant Rod Serling), Planet of the Apes injects a ton of social commentary about the arrogance of humanity as dominant rulers of our planet and throws in a ton of subtext about the balance of science and religion within culture. This is truly the heart and soul of why this film has gained a universal influence over the years and why a film about man’s subservience to apes isn’t nearly as cheesy as it can be.

This, of course, is not the entire release why Planet of the Apes is so successful. Despite some of the cheesy elements of the film, it carries a significant amount of charm. It’s not a wholly action packed film (this was a day and age when science fiction was it’s own genre and not a subgenre of action films like it is now), but the film moves at a thrilling pace blending some chase sequences into the heavy concept. While I’m not fully convinced of Heston’s acting chops here, the writing does specifically keep his character’s past decently vague, the supporting cast is phenomenal. Especially those required to act through an ape mask like the awesome work of Kim Hunter and Roddy McDowall as our human loving chimps. To be honest, all of it works in fantastical conjunction.

Rattlin' cages.
Nostalgia might play a role in my immense love for this film, but even the film critic in me sees the universality of this classic science fiction romp. It’s a fun film, cheesy at times in the perfect 60s sort of way, but the depth of the script and the memorable characters make Planet of the Apes a film that will last 2,000 years.

Written By Matt Reifschneider

Sunday, July 6, 2014

Rigor Mortis (2014)

Director: Juno Mak
Notable Cast: Chin Siu-Ho, Anthony Chan, Kara Hui, Richard Ng, Lo Hoi-Pang, Nina Paw

Blending genres of film can be a chancy maneuver for any filmmaker. When you’re successful it’s impactful. When you’re not, it’s a clusterfuck. Going into Rigor Mortis I had my qualms. Could the combination of Juno Mak and Takashi Shimizu really produce a film about Chinese hopping vampires and J-Horror popping ghosts that would be as awesome as it sounds? They sure as hell did. Rigor Mortis is one of the most unusual horror films I’ve seen in years and the combination of two countries worth of horror trends is a sight to behold. It’s quirky, brutal, and massively entertaining. Not only is Rigor Mortis one of the best horror films of the year, it’s one of the best films, period.

Life has been a little rough for actor Chin (Chin Siu-Ho) and he’s decided it’s time to end it all. So he rents out a room in a shitty apartment complex where he can commit suicide. Unfortunately, he doesn’t quite get there because this apartment is filled with the supernatural and macabre. Twins haunt his apartment, there is a mother/son duo who randomly wander the halls, and let’s not forget the black magic practioner who has just created his own hopping vampire. With the help of cook/vampire hunter Yau (Anthony Chan), Chin is going to have to step up if he is going to put an end to all of these shenanigans.

Jump for joy! It's good horror this year!
To be perfectly honest, I’m not necessarily familiar with the entire Chinese hopping vampire film. I have yet to experience Mr. Vampire (a film that Rigor Mortis pays massive homage to with its casting) so going into this one I was a bit hesitant that I might not get what Juno Mak was throwing at me. Luckily, it never seemed to hinder my enjoyment of the film. Blending the hopping vampire aspects with some Japanese ghost elements, Rigor Mortis combines some very unique horror elements into one package. Using both subtle jumps and some more straightforward shock elements (gore aplenty and some wicked kills), Juno Mak slathers the film in brutal moments and some intense atmosphere with his rather unhindered visual work, which is beautiful as it is horrifying in many moments. Rigor Mortis is top notch in production values and Juno Mak uses them to their full benefit.

From there (this is where it gets tricky and might not appeal to as many people like it did to me) Rigor Mortis adds in some dark comedy and, believe it or not, some kung fu. The finale is packed with some hero vs. vampire kung fu trickery as is a somewhat humorous and quirky possession sequence where our vampire hunter and black magician have to team up to ‘exorcise’ the twin ghosts from our hero. This adds a bit to the humor, most of which is pretty dry and straightforward. I don’t think the vampire hunter/cook Yau wears a pair of pants for most of the film, for example. Both of these elements might not appeal to horror fan that is going out to purchase this, but for this cult cinema nerd it was impressively integrated into the film and worked to balance out some of the strong dramatic beats and heavy horror elements.

Kitchen accidents happen.
To say that this film ends up as an energetic ball of eclecticism is probably an understatement. It’s an odd combination of talents behind and in front of the camera that makes Rigor Mortis work, but it works in such an odd and brilliantly balanced way that I immediately hit play again when the film ended. For all the things that could have gone wrong with the blended genres, it works damn near perfectly here. Rigor Mortis gets the highest recommendation from me. It’s a blast through and through.

Written By Matt Reifschneider 

Monday, June 30, 2014

Wolf Creek 2 (2014)

Director: Greg McLean
Notable Cast:  John Jarratt, Ryan Corr, Shannon Ashlyn, Philippe Klaus

After watching the long awaited sequel Wolf Creek 2, I realized just how fucking long it has been since the first one came out. Granted I never really got around to watching the wildly acclaimed slasher flick until 2010 (you can check out my review HERE) so there’s that, but dammit this film was a long time coming. Just like any good sequel, Wolf Creek 2 delivers on a variety of fronts – giving us similar beats to what made the first film such a success and piling on all kinds of new additions to keep it fresh.

A German backpacking couple has decided that their ‘great adventure’ is going to have to be across the Outback. They plan to experience each other and experience an adventure of hitchhiking across Australia. What they didn’t plan on was running into the path of ‘Outback legend’ Mick Taylor. Now they’re gonna have to get the hell out of dodge before he makes sure they never leave.

At its core, Wolf Creek 2 is a fairly simple film that does some crazy not-so-simple things. The first one crafted a script and atmosphere to the film that made it hard to stomach at times in the realism of its approach as it took on the slasher genre in a Texas Chainsaw Massacre sort of way. Wolf Creek 2 does like most sequels do: jacks it up to 11. Now some of the lacking atmosphere in the horror moments might disappoint fans of the first film, in many ways it’s hard for me to say that it was a better film at all, but there is a sort of charm and outrageousness to those moments that comes as refreshing and I had a blast with it.

Choke it down!
Greg McLean seems to have a lot more fun here with this entry. While there are some throwback elements to the first film, a vicious game of 20 Questions gets bloody in the final act with a bit of torture that will have you grating your teeth, the majority of the film is spent almost like an action thriller instead of a horror flick. What starts off like your basic horror film takes a wicked twist half way through (Oh, I’m not telling you what it is either!) and it leaps into a ridiculously awesome Road Warrior-esque chase sequence complete with stand offs, road kill, and semi truck leaving the ground. It might not have been your usual horror fare, but I was impressed with it. This sort of cat and mouse chase occurs throughout much of the second act and for this fan it was the highlight of the flick.

On top of the more action oriented style of flick at times, McLean also bathes the film in some serious dark humor. Since we all know Mick Taylor is already the bad guy, he instead uses the charm and quirkiness of the character for a slew of one liners and an increased insane malice. The opening sequence features our resident villain being pulled over by the police and while it didn’t add a whole lot to the plot of the film, it might have been my favorite scene from the film. Mick Taylor (played once again to perfection by John Jarratt) easily steals the film again and again with every scene he is in.

If there were two things that I could constructively criticize Wolf Creek 2 for it would be the lacking strength of a protagonist and the ending. Neither one really knocked the film over for me outright, but the lacking punch of a great hero in the film (despite Taylor actually calling the one protagonist hero throughout) and the sudden abrupt ending took it down a few notches. The first film also had an ending that came out of the blue and this one doubles down on it. So just be prepared for that.

Face the pain.
Wolf Creek 2 might not be the underground hit that the first one was with it’s legitimate scares and palpable tension, but I’d be hard pressed to say that I didn’t enjoy this second one more. It’s a blast to watch with its action oriented chase sequences and insanely creepy/hilarious humor and even though I wasn’t sold on any of our protagonists overall, it’s not like they could have outshined Jarratt as Taylor anyway. For the third one, here’s to hoping they up the ante with a hero that can truly give the Outback Legend a run for his money. 

Written By Matt Reifschneider

Sunday, June 29, 2014

Chef, the Actor, and the Scoundrel, The (2014)

Director: Guan Hu

Notable Cast: Liu Ye, Zhang Hanyu, Huang Bo, Liang Jing

Comedies have never been my favorites overall, but I’m always willing to leap into one if the concept appeals to me. For a film like The Chef, the Actor, and the Scoundrel I was more than willing to take the dive. The idea of three semi-insane characters attempting to steal a secret formula from Japanese military folks in occupied China seemed like it could be full fun moments and comedic gold. The resulting film is more mixed than that considering it’s probably only half comedy overall and the blending of styles by director Guan Hu doesn’t necessarily work as well as it could have.

It’s the 1940s and the tension between Japan and China is at its peak. A vicious outbreak of cholera has swept through and left its mark, but hope is on the horizon. Two Japanese officials have just found themselves kidnapped at the hands of three insane restaurant workers…and they have decided that extracting information about a cure for cholera will be there shot at money and glory.

Go team crazy!
While I love quirky films as a general rule of thumb, occasionally quirky for the sake of quirky can run itself into the ground. That’s what happens here in The Chef, the Actor, and the Scoundrel and it’s strange take on blending war film, western, and comedy. While initially I loved the four lead characters and their crazy personas (yes, there is a leading lady in the film that the title mysterious leaves out), after about 10 minutes of the slapstick comedy and the circus like acts I was already burned out on it. This is already after the film has injected animation and silent film visuals into the mix, oh yes the first act of this film is everywhere, and it is borderline overwhelming on first viewing.

Granted, the film does have a purpose for this sort of cartoon like approach for the plot. I don’t want to give too much away, but the film takes a more realistic approach in the final half with serious and heavy character progressions as the film shifts into a more traditional war film scenario. While this shift certainly came with a sigh of relief from my overloaded brain, the film doesn’t abandon the opening style and sort of leaps from slapstick to serious in archaic fashion. Sure some of the comedy works (there is a decapitation sequence that had tears in my eyes) and some of the darker war material hits home (the final explosive finale actually has some great character beats), but the flow of the film suffers from the blended styles of the film.

Just hanging out.
All in all, The Chef, the Actor, and the Scoundrel is a film that will find its cult audience over time. It takes a few viewings to really latch onto the entire thing and too often that’s problematic for more casual fans of the style or idea who happen to rent the film or watch it on a whim. For this reviewer, the lacking flow of the script that fails to flesh out some of the subplots enough and the scattershot moments of humor didn’t quite make the cut. Perhaps with further viewings I will find my appreciation for the quirkiness grow, but at this time I’m only willing to shed:

Written By Matt Reifschneider

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

New One-Armed Swordsman, The (1971)

Director: Chang Cheh
Notable Cast: David Chiang, Ti Lung, Ching Lee, Ku Feng, Chen Sing, Cheng Lei, Wang Chung

With two successful One-Armed Swordsman entries under his belt already, it would seem only smart to keep the ‘franchise’ going even if the Shaw Brothers were not always franchise oriented. So here comes Chang Cheh to revitalize the idea with the third entry, which in this day and age would have been called a reboot, with The New One-Armed Swordsman. This time around he calls upon his own ‘deadly duo’ to lead the film with David Chiang taking the titular role and Ti Lung in a meaty secondary role. Oddly enough, despite being a whole new story using some of the same concepts from the first two, The New One-Armed Swordsman is just as good as the original with strong characters, great dramatic moments, and a memorable finale. This series just keeps kicking ass.

Li Lei (David Chiang) displays his arrogance and skills in grandiose ways by using his twin sword technique to battle off robbers and general evildoers. When an evil villain, whom loves to stomp on upcoming martial arts heroes, beats him in a match, Li Lei is forced to cut off his own arm in disgrace and goes to live the rest of his days as a waiter in a small restaurant. There he meets another young hero (Ti Lung) who seems to be walking into the villains’ trap. Will he take up the blade once more to stop the evil lord once and for all?

"Oh yes. It cost me an arm, but not a leg."
Unlike Return of the One-Armed Swordsman, The New One-Armed Swordsman ditches a lot of the gimmicks and goes back to what made the original film such a great film to watch: dramatic character work. David Chiang handles the occasionally subtle and torn psyche of our lead with impressive care so that his journey from cocky swordsman to beaten waiter is something the audience feels and by the time he is forced to take up the sword again, we desperately want to see him kick some villain ass. This is countered by the ever-charming Ti Lung as his friend in the latter portion of the film who paints the character with broad strokes that still get the viewer invested in his role and how it will affect Li Lei. Partnered with a great secondary cast of a love interest (which never feels forced and works to add to the stakes of the third act) and some delightfully cheesy villains, The New One-Armed Swordsman blends all of the great elements of Shaw Brothers into an effective film experience.

From there Chang Cheh continues to create depth for the film with its simple, but well written and paced plot. Sure the ‘fallen hero must take revenge on those who continue to bully’ isn’t the most original concept and the Shaw Brothers certainly wore it thin, but it works here.  Chang Cheh is a great director who can blend serious concepts with occasional gimmicks (including the juggling aspect of this film and how that evolves to be a large portion of the film) and slathers it in some great action set pieces. While the film is full of fun bits of choreography with those brutal moments of violence that Chang Cheh is known for – you get to see a man chopped in half in mid air! – the finale is something to be admired. A massive bridge becomes a graveyard as our hero goes to face his nemesis and the combination of weapon work and some hand to hand combat flows damn near perfectly for the last act.

"Shave. Free of charge."
The Shaw Brothers studio might have pumped out a staggering amount of films at the height of their career, but the most impressive aspect is that there are films of this quality in the mix. The New One-Armed Swordsman is a sweeping and subtle character driven epic, fueled by great performances, thoughtful action set pieces, and a plot that drives home the humanity of old school kung fu flick. Like the original in this series, it comes very highly recommended as one of the best that the studio has to offer.

Written By Matt Reifschneider

Monday, June 23, 2014

In the Blood (2014)

Director: John Stockwell
Notable Cast: Gina Carano, Cam Gigandet, Luis Guzman, Danny Trejo, Amaury Nolasco, Ismael Cruz Cordova, Treat Williams

I’m not one to completely write off athletes that become movie stars. Most of my favorite action stars were at one point “professional” athletes or martial artists, in fact. After seeing Haywire, I had high hopes for MMA fighter turned actress Gina Carano. She had some decent acting chops and she was able to hold her own when needed with screen presence. Her turn as a glorified cameo in Fast & Furious 6 was not something to write home about, but then again it was basically a glorified cameo. For her latest film as the heroic lead, In the Blood, I went hoping for the best from the straight to DVD action flick. I definitely didn’t get the best when it came to a film though.

While basking in the fun and sun of their honeymoon on an island in the Caribbean, a freak accident leaves Ava’s husband (Gigandet) in an ambulance on his way to the hospital. When she arrives though, there is no record of him ever being checked in. He has simply disappeared. With her particular set of skills though, Ava (Carano) is going to find her husband and it’s not going to be without a little blood shed.

"Dying sure looks like fun!"
In the vain of many other action/thriller’s featuring a missing loved one like Taken, In the Blood slathers a basic mystery thriller with some beat downs and action set pieces for a modern audience. Unlike films like Taken, it has trouble doing so due to a script that meanders through the concept like a person lost in a dense fog in the middle of a forest. It bounces from moment to moment unsure of how to really fit it all together or build in the details to make the ‘mystery’ aspect work. Of course, it certainly doesn’t help that the acting is pretty horrendous throughout and Carano has approximately ZERO chemistry with her on screen husband, which makes the first third of the film drag out beyond belief. Sure Carano gets to throw down in a few fun sequences (a club dance goes awry and leads to a bitchin’ leaping punch courtesy of MMA training), but the acting and the script leave a lot to be desired for a good action flick.

So what does In the Blood offer for action fans? Despite some terrible acting, the film has a glorified cameo from both Treat Williams (Deep Rising) and Danny Trejo (Machete) that will have fans pleased overall. The film also has a pretty decent third act when we finally learn why all of these plot progressions went down, which in itself is a rather weak reason, but it finally introduces us to the villain of the film who steals every scene he is in and propels the film into a gun toting cat and mouse chase. At this point, I was actually enjoying what In the Blood had to offer, but alas it was too little and too late by that time. One good act, does not make a great film.

"Let me trim that beard for you, sir!"
In an era where straight to home video action flicks have found their own path with fun and distinctive voices, In the Blood fails to be memorable in any way outside of disappointment. Sure it has some great casting and a fun third act, but the rest drags it down to the point where I almost didn’t make it to any of those elements. The acting is forced and awkward, the story leaps around erratically, and the film ultimately looks like it was shot to be a reality TV show. I’m all for low budget actioners with athletes in the lead, but even this one handedly missed the mark. Here’s to hoping that Carano moves up from here. 

Written By Matt Reifschneider

Thursday, June 19, 2014

In Fear (2013)

Director: Jeremy Lovering
Notable Cast: Iain De Caestecker, Alice Englert

The reviews for In Fear might have been a bit mixed, but I was still looking forward to the indie horror flick. Made for a micro budget, In Fear looked to be a minimalist and atmosphere driven horror flick. Those are some of my favorite kinds. So I went into the film with high hopes and some decent expectations. What In Fear ending up being was, more or less, pretty boring. Sure there were some decent moments of actor chemistry and director Jeremy Lovering brings some great subtle moments of suspense, but too often it takes far too long getting anyway and the audience feels like our two protagonists…like we’re going in circles.

Tom (De Caestecker) and Lucy (Englert) might still be figuring out where they are going with their relationship together, but a weekend away at a concert with a night in a motel together sounds like the perfect time to do just that. The problem is that their motel is pretty remote in the woods and their quick road trip together starts to become frustrating when they get lost. Then weird things start to happen…

"Look over here...AT NOTHING!"
The potential for In Fear was pretty large. Paranoia, a decent into a nightmarish situation, character driven dialogue. These are all elements that could have been elevated even more throughout the film for it to be even more taunt and haunting. As is, In Fear tends to play the minimalism card a little too heavy in the opening (despite some great dialogue and actor chemistry with our two protagonists) and it the film seemingly drags as we are treated to some odd occurrences that don’t quite inject the fear that the title so desperately promises. 

The latter half of the film takes an intriguing turn when our protagonists, who are already freaked out by the mysterious events occurring around them, meet another victim bloodied and stumbling in the forest. Without giving too much away plot wise, the film suddenly shifts focus to how he fits into the picture. While the actor playing our newly found victim struts some fun material, instead of propelling the film along to raise the stakes In Fear just sits on this and almost reboots the atmosphere and suspense factor. There is some subtle fun to be had with the interaction of the three parties involved, but rarely does it feel like its going anywhere with it and the film tries desperately to throw red herrings at the audience with it instead of pulling ‘the bomb under the table trick’ and allowing the audience to see what’s going to happen before the characters do.

"We got a long way to go and a short time to do it in."
By the end of In Fear, I ended up being very apathetic towards the entire film. It had some decent elements to enjoy including character chemistry and the atmosphere of the film, but it never felt like it was driving towards a purpose or conclusion. It meanders for most of the run time and while the final moments were a nice wrap around of events, it ended with a whimper. I can certainly see why many people loved the film, but I found it more or less a film that just existed. 

Written By Matt Reifschneider

Sunday, June 15, 2014

Puncture Wounds (2014)

Directors: Giorgio Serafini, James Coyne
Notable Cast: Cung Le, Dolph Lundgren, Vinnie Jones, Briana Evigan, Gianni Capaldi
Aka: A Certain Justice

I have been anxiously awaiting for the film to really break out Cung Le as the action star he desperately wants to be, yet films like Puncture Wounds don’t do him justice. In fact, I’m not sure Puncture Wounds did anyone justice even if the title card was A Certain Justice rather than Puncture Wounds (?!). To be honest, this was a terrible fucking movie. I mean, I can see why they thought it might have made a decent low budget action flick. Too bad the execution of the film is some terrible new school attempts at gritty action that even I couldn’t get into.

John (Cung Le) is an ex-green beret finally come home from war. In an attempt to readjust to civilian life, he finds himself in a shit motel with little in the way of purpose. When he sees a prostitute being beaten in the parking lot one night, he takes it upon himself to show those guys what’s up and ends up killing a couple of them. When their boss Hillis (Lundgren) finds out, he tries to get John trapped and sets off a one man war against a massive drug and prostitution ring.

At the core of the film, Puncture Wounds really wants to be a modern First Blood. A solider who is dealing with his own internal issues comes head to head with crime tycoon? It’s a concept that could have – and should have – worked. It tries to work itself out too. The film touches on lots of potentially dramatic threads from PTSD to prostitution to child pornography to police corruption. Unfortunately, it’s a little much for the film to try and balance. We get a slew of characters with potential dramatic beats, like the main detective and his cancer stricken wife, that just don’t quite flow. Puncture Wounds needed to choose a few elements and strengthen them instead of spreading itself so thin on some many levels. It leaves the film feeling often scattered and lacking oomph for a lot of moments that could have had real impact.

It also doesn’t help that the writing for the dialogue can’t seem to figure out if it wants to be a cheesy action flick or a more serious thriller. For some pretty serious sequences, including an arc for Cung Le that starts off solid but flounders in the latter half when the film careens into resembling another entry into The Marine franchise, the actors seem intent on selling it, but the dialogue and content battles them. You end up having a decent action actor like Dolph Lundgren stroking his terrible looking mustache and spouting off generic lines about taking things to the next level. It doesn’t work.

…and then, to top it all off, directors Serafini and Coyne seemingly have no idea how to cut and shoot an action sequence. When the film opens with a later sequence of Cung Le throwing the beat down on a few thugs in an abandoned factory, I started to cringe at the modern zooms, rapid cuts, and attempted shaky cam. By the time he had his initial fight with the thugs to protect the prostitute, I gave up. That style might work for realistic thrillers and occasionally for bigger budget action films, it comes off desperate and poorly put together in a film like this. These new directors need to understand that grit and kinetic energy do not replace well choreographed action set pieces, but should be there to enhance them.

This is how I felt after watching this film.
Unfortunately, Puncture Wounds is one of those low budget actioners that give direct to home video flicks a bad name. It’s scattered in writing, the acting suffers from a script and amateur directing, and the action pieces are butchered by poor choreography and editing. Here’s to hoping that Cung Le’s next starring role is in a film that’s pieced together better than this. For now, this is a big skip even for action fans.

Written By Matt Reifschneider

Friday, June 13, 2014

Kill Zombie! (2014)

Directors: Martijn Smits, Erwin Van Den Eshof
Notable Cast: Yahya Gaier, Mimoun Ouled Radi, Gigi Ravelli, Sergio Hasselbaink, Uriah Arnhem

While I might watch a ton of foreign films, rarely do I find Dutch films on my viewing queue. A few here and there, but not a whole lot considering the amount of film I watch. So when Kill Zombie! came in from the ever vigilant Well Go USA, I was a bit shocked to be watching a zom-com (Is that term for zombie comedy still popular?) from the Netherlands. While the film certainly owes its fair share to some of the modern comedic groundwork to the likes of Shaun of the Dead, it tries to really burn its own trail for the audience with some pretty fun gags and full-blown splatter. It’s not a wholly original experience, but it’s pretty obvious that everyone involved with Kill Zombie! was having a blast making it.

Two brothers (Gaier and Radi) are having a rough day. One of them gets fired from his job due to a blooming relationship with his coworker and they both end up in jail for the night with two petty criminals (Hasselbaink and Arnhem.) When they wake up, they find out that shit has hit the fan and a Russian space satellite has crashed in the city and spread an infection that leaves a majority of the city as green spewing, flesh hungry zombies. Can these four gentlemen with the help of a beautiful police woman (Ravelli) rescue a damsel in distress and make it out of the city alive?

Gang up!
While the comedic aspects of surviving a zombie apocalypse are rather well documented on film at this time, I still had a lot of fun with Kill Zombie!. This Dutch zom-com isn’t necessarily original even as a silly comedy when the film is filled with simplistic one-tone characters and a ton of gimmick riddled sequences, but there is definitely a charm to the entire flick that carries it through the various generic tropes. The entire cast and directors Martijn Smits and Erwin Van Den Eshof have a knack for strong comedic timing and quirky modern streaks of humor. Take the TV news reporter who finds himself fighting zombies with a machine gun while trying to report the news or the two martial arts chefs who drive around a car with zombie parts chained to it. They are silly gimmicks for exposition and quick plot progression in the film, but it works due to a straight-faced performance and some great timing. This is how Kill Zombie! utilizes it’s comedy to effective results.

As a zombie flick, Kill Zombie! has some intriguing quirks too. The green blood and saliva is a nice comic touch to get away some pretty intense violence without being too dark (although a first person head bashing scene might be the best comedic moment of the film despite its rather super violent nature) and the gore abounds as our troop of heroes have to rely on anything to get through the apocalypse. A zombie grandma sequence is hilarious with its gore and timing. Just as an example.

...when you absolutely have to kill every mother fucker in the room.
While the film is not perfect and tends to hit some of the most predictable plot beats that these kind of films use, Kill Zombie! is still a charismatic flick that uses some fun timing and great outrageous set pieces to sell its basic concept. While it’s not for everyone, I had a blast with this film. 

Written By Matt Reifschneider