Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Zatoichi Challenged (1967)

Director: Kenji Misumi

Notable Cast: Shintaro Katsu, Jushiro Konoe, Miwa Takada, Yukiji Asaoka, Mikiko Tsubouchi, Mie Nakao, Takao Ito, Midori Isomura, Eitaro Ozawa, Asao Koike 

“If you insist. I’ll just sit over here and take in the sights.” –Zatoichi

With a title like Zatoichi Challenged, one would assume that this seventeenth entry into the franchise would pose a villain so massively evil that even the charming and often good hearted Zatoichi would be crippled at the idea of it. However, unlike the previous entry Zatoichi the Outlaw, Challenged is a rather subdued and emotional film – less focused on action and violence and more about the storytelling and characters. The challenge of this one is not necessarily the obstacles that our hero has to overcome, but the emotional impact of those obstacles. It makes for one of the best films of the series.

While on the road, Zatoichi (Shintaro Katsu) finds a dying woman in an inn with her young son. He swears to take the little boy to his father in a nearby town. On his journey though, he uncovers some strange happenings with the local boss and finds himself crossing paths with a strange samurai who seems to be both friend and foe…

An unlikely team.
While the last film Outlaw saw the franchise switch up the formula a bit and boost the complexity of its story, this entry goes back to the core of the series – much to some fans dismay. The results though, particularly with having director Kenji Misumi return to the helm are rather efficient and effective. The film bares a remarkable resemblance to the director’s earlier film Fight, Zatoichi, Fight as our hero has to think about the legacy he leaves as a caretaker and a role model, but Challenged improves on many of those motifs. The relationship between Zatoichi and the boy Ryota (who comes off as horrifically annoying – for a purpose) is heartfelt and often humorous as each one figures out how it’s going to work. A scene where Zatoichi gives Ryota’s drawing of his mother to the father is particularly subtle, but wholly effective in its emotional beats, for example. It’s this core element that makes it so effective throughout as a story narrative even when the film starts threading in more traditional Zatoichi vs evil bosses plot aspects.

From there though, Misumi has quite the handle on how the narrative should flow between the character beats and the plot progressions. Continued hints in the dialogue and story build a solid foundation for the finale to rest on and the continued appearance of Jushiro Konoe as a mysterious samurai builds perfectly towards the last time that their paths will meet. The obvious clash at the end of the film starts off in a more generic tone as Zatoichi finds himself at the hands of another group of baddies, but it’s the final showdown of samurai swords that really stands out as one of the better action set pieces of the franchise. The last twenty minutes of snowy tension are impressive as the edge-of-your-seat battle ensues.

The beauty of framing your shots.
Zatoichi Challenged is often criticized for its simplistic return to the basics and similar premise, but this allows Misumi to work some magic with the script. The character work is heartfelt in its impact (the final scene on the bridge is a tearjerker) and the action is top notch in its execution – particularly in some of the subtle character beats that show up in mid fight. Some might call it simple, but Challenged is efficient in its story telling and subtle in its detailing. The results are surprisingly forceful if one is looking for it.

Written By Matt Reifschneider

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Jupiter Ascending (2015)

Directors: The Wachowskis
Notable Cast: Mila Kunis, Channing Tatum, Sean Bean, Eddie Redmayne, Douglas Booth, Tuppence Middleton

For the Wachowskis, the last handful of films has seen them bite off more than they can chew either critically or financially. Since their iconic Matrix films dominated the action science fiction spectrum, a series of interesting (if not somewhat ballsy) choice of films has made their fan base turn from rabid to flaccid. Their latest, Jupiter Ascending, is a massive space opera with a lush universe, monster action set pieces, and a quirky sense of direction. It also happens to be an entire franchise worth of story and characters jammed into two hours. The result is something of an oddity in itself where the film entertains in its absurd excess, but rarely has the legs to actually execute when needed.

For the young Russian immigrant Jupiter (Kunis), life is repetitive and unfulfilling as a maid with her family. She dreams for something bigger for herself. Well, that bigger just found her in the form of a series of intergalactic bounty hunters, assassins, and police. As it would so happen, she’s of royal genetics of a massive corporate (and corrupt) family that owns entire planets. Can she claim her destiny as one of the big shots the universe or will her evil blood line spoil the dream?

Not messing around...
Jupiter Ascending is a lot of plot to consume. And much like the character Jupiter (and Mila Kunis’ deer in the headlights performance), the audience sort of has to bounce around the galaxy and just go with the flow. If one stops to think too much, then I guarantee they will be swept away in the flurry of monsters, explosions, and random side characters that all seem to be misfits from the island of Dr. Moreau. This is, inherently, the biggest obstacle that this film cannot hurdle – its own concept. As we are subjugated to three pouty lipped villains (of various color coded décor castles) and so many subplots that range from ex-military anti-hero romantics to genome harvesting to the legalities of reincarnation in space law, it’s ridiculously hard to keep up. When I said there is an entire franchise worth of material in this film, I’m not exaggerating. It’s enough so that the rather mundane basic character arc for our heroine Jupiter, a commoner thrust into power and having to make big moral choices, it doesn’t feel weird enough.

Luckily, the Wachowskis as directors overcome their scripting issues by making Jupiter Ascending so excessive in its ridiculousness that it’s damn entertaining. The lush CGI visuals, the blend of special effects for the monsters, and the Wachowskis own knowledge of how to showcase great use of space (pun intended) for their action set pieces. While Kunis struggles a bit in the lead, Tatum seems to be having way too much fun as a shirtless wolf man on hover-roller blades and the rest of the cast seems to be hamming it up in the other roles. This leaves quite a bit to be desired as “depth” or “abilities for the audience to relate” to the characters on any level, but fuck it…WOLF MAN ON HOVER-ROLLER BLADES FIGHTING DRAGON MEN! It certainly appeals to the B-grade action fan in me.

Much akin to their Speed Racer film, Jupiter Ascending has a trouble justifying just what audience the film is geared towards. It’s too complex in legality and capitalism criticisms to be a true family flick and it’s far too cartoonish to cater to adults exclusively. There are moments of the Wachowskis knack of injecting philosophy and thoughtfulness of concept in the film, but it’s wrapped up in so much glitz and plot that it will take some hover-roller blades and some genetic bee-sense to find it. As is, it’s a ridiculously outrageous form of entertainment (if you have the right mindset) that is an A-budget B-grade film. If you are looking for deep characters and poignant narrative, it’s best to look somewhere else.

Written By Matt Reifschneider

Sunday, March 1, 2015

Dead in Tombstone (2013)

Director: Roel Reine
Notable Cast: Danny Trejo, Anthony Michael Hall, Mickey Rourke, Dina Meyer

Modern westerns are hit or miss to begin with and usually exist as either terrible or terrific. Occasionally, a film arises that is both terrible and terrific. For a film of this caliber (oh yes, that pun is fully intended), look no further than the supernatural western Dead in Tombstone. Playing out like a version of The Crow in the wild, wild west, this modern western has so much fun packed into its run time that it upgrades itself to an A-grade B-movie. This is not a film for everyone with its obvious plot progressions and often quite silly aspects, but for those in the right mood or with the right intent Dead in Tombstone is a righteous entertaining flick.

For Guerrero (Trejo), the day couldn’t possibly get any worse. After freeing his brother Red Cavanaugh (Hall) from the hangman’s noose, a big score of gold sits on the horizon for him and his gang. Too bad, the gang has other ideas and Red takes his life so that they can take over a shit town and keep the gold for themselves. Sent to hell, Guerrero makes a pact with the Devil (Rourke) to be returned for 24 hours to kill the six members of his gang.

The plot is so ridiculously B-grade that it’s hard not to buy into it almost immediately. A returned bandit from the dead out for vengeance in the wild, wild west? Corrupt marshals, a gang of gimmicky fighters and thieves, and how about a Devil that also part times as a blacksmith of sorts? This shit is catered to those with questionable tastes in film (like us here at Blood Brothers) and while the film certainly could have even gone further with its outrageousness, it plays it pretty straightforward - a move that makes it either better or worse depending on the viewer’s tastes.

What’s even better is that the film is built to be entertaining beyond the plot. The casting is spot on. Trejo is another great anti-hero, Anthony Michael Hall seemingly devours his time as a duster wearing greedy villain, and Rourke saunters around being delightfully creepy as the blacksmith Lucifer. It’s hard to say that outside of these roles any of the secondary parts are all that memorable, but with these three to eat up screen time, one can overlook it. Under the direction of vulgar auteur hero Roel Reine, the film plays up its quirky nature, dark off beat humor, and violence. Did you ever want to see Trejo blow a man’s face off with a small cannon? How about ride up a flight of stairs in a saloon on a horse? Perhaps stage an ill advised two-person raid on a gold mine littered with well-armed baddies? This is the kind of film that has all of this wrapped up.

Occasionally, the film missteps with its blend of modern action and old school vibes. The lead female character Massey is given some of the worst back story and dialogue on the planet, ultimately serving as a plot device more than a fun character, and the strange choice of score feels out of place at times with its modern twists on older foundations. However, those are usually par for the course for these kinds of films and it didn’t hinder the overall entertainment value that Dead in Tombstone delivers.

Cult character actors collide.
If you read the synopsis and think to yourself ‘boy, this sure sounds awesome,’ then yes, absolutely you should do yourself a favor and watch Dead in Tombstone. If you read the synopsis and think ‘boy, this sounds like shit,’ then by all means skip it and run for the hills. Dead in Tombstone is one of those B-grade flicks that owns its place, knowing its not up for any awards, but is made with enough energy and love to excel at what it does. Here’s to hoping that the film garners some sort of franchise. Trejo is already 70, so it needs to happen now rather than later.

Written By Matt Reifschneider

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Why Don't You Play in Hell? (2014)

Director: Sion Sono
Notable Cast: Jun Kunimura, Fumi Nikaido, Shinichi Tsutsumi, Hiroki Hasegawa, Gen Hoshino, Tomochika, Itsuji Itao, Hiroyuki Onoue, Tak Sakaguchi

Most of Sion Sono’s career has been crafted on the pillars of darkness, quirkiness, and super-violence, so it’s no huge surprise that Why Don’t You Play in Hell? is a film built on pillars of darkness, quirkiness, and super-violence. From the films that I have been privy to witness from this madman of cult film, this is a running theme of sorts and he always presents his material in some of the more challenging ways to a viewer. For this one though, he goes even further. While the film presents itself as a comedy for a majority of the film, it’s truly a Sion Sono flick through and through with its blend of violence, disturbing moments, and outrageous structure. And it’s pretty fuckin’ brilliant.

The Fuck Bombers are a young group film makers with a desire to make the world’s best film. On the eve of a yakuza raid, they will be asked to film the ordeal as a favor to the boss’ wife who is due to be released from prison after ten years. Using the bosses daughter as the star and the real life violence to grace their screen, this is the time The Fuck Bombers have been waiting for…the ultimate film.

Swords are always the best option.
The core of Why Don’t You Play in Hell?’s concept is that of a love letter (and satirical vehicle) for old school Japanese cinema…albeit done with a modern twist. Sion Sono is one of the those film makers who can take grindhouse elements and add enough flair to appeal to arthouse folks and the same goes for this one. Why Don’t You Play in Hell? is both charming and challenging in many ways. It took myself two viewings to really buy into what Sono is offering. The structure of the film is a bit crazy as the audience is submitted to what is essentially three separate story lines that all seem to be filled with lots of random tid bits and tangents. Don’t mistake these smaller segments as filler though, Sono uses them to bring the stories together in the third act.

They even fit in a Bruce Lee reference.
Even beyond the structure, the film certainly felt very challenging. The humor was much more clownish than I expected and there are a lot of characters that are introduced. If it wasn’t for the talent of the actors/actresses in the film and the obvious ‘larger scope’ concept of Sono, this film would have collapsed. Luckily, the performances are top notch all the way around, the humor (while occasionally a bit extreme) is effective, and the visuals give the film an almost fever dream like quality at times in its satire. A repeated toothbrush jingle or the use of a waves of blood are prime examples of the extremity of the humor/satire that is present in the film.

Then, of course, one has to mention the last act of the film. This violent yakuza clash is not for the weak of heart as Sono (in true Sono fashion) never shies away from the violence and often uses it to great comic effect. The digital blood can be a bit of a turn off, particularly when the film is a sort of homage to old school film making, but the resulting clash of worlds/characters/plots is so ridiculously epic that it’s hard not to love. The sheer brutality is impressive and there is just enough humor and heart in the final act that it works in perfect balance.

Pretty rainbows.
While I would be hard pressed to call Why Don’t You Play in Hell? Sion Sono’s best film, I am very tempted to say that after two viewings it’s probably my favorite. The strange clash of genres, the challenging structure and writing, the spot on performances, and the final act make for a film that will last the test of time easily for cult fans. For the casual movie watcher, Why Don’t You Play in Hell? may very well rub you the wrong way – if not in many ways. For those willing to buy into the weird homage/satire of the film, it’s a sure fire classic for the ages.

Written By Matt Reifschneider

Saturday, February 21, 2015

Zatoichi the Outlaw (1967)

Director: Satsuo Yamamoto
Notable Cast: Shintaro Katsu, Rentaro Mikuni, Mizuho Suzuki, Ko Nishimura, Yuko Hamada, Toshiyuki Hosokawa, Tatsuo Endo

In my last review for the Zatoichi franchise for Zatoichi’s Cane Sword, the point was made to praise the franchise for almost always putting the storytelling first in the films. This was a big reason for the continued success of the films. For the sixteenth entry and first for the new production company Katsu Productions, Zatoichi the Outlaw sacrifices a lot of its narrative structure and story for the sake of being a more ‘entertaining’ film. Outlaw is the first of the franchise to really start twisting the established formula a bit, but for a fan working through the series the sacrifices are not nearly worth the new elements – although it’s easy to see why one would love this one too.

Zatoichi (Shintaro Katsu), like every other week, stumbles into a town in strife. Two yakuza bosses are at a standstill with one another and the rice farmers in the middle are the ones that suffer. Zatoichi, in an effort to help, aligns with Asagoro (Rentaro Mikuni) and a swordless samurai Ohara (Mizuho Suzuki) who both stand for the people. When he finds himself wanted by the law though, Zatoichi begins to think that perhaps he was played as a pawn…

Overall, the story is sound. It still works in many of the same tropes we have come accustomed to with this series and the way that the two sides play out a sort of chess match using Zatoichi as a piece makes for some pretty entertaining moments. The film is one of the darker entries in the series thus far (if not the darkest) as we see less of a clear cut line between bad and good – including in our hero Zatoichi who carries more of that anti-hero vibe this time around. The film is also the most violent in the franchise too. More bright red blood graces the screen, including a bit where a woman accuses Zatoichi for being a heartless killer for not being able to see the blood he has spilled, and there are more violent visual consequences for the fights that erupt. This is the first time we’ve seen a decapitation in the series and it’s impactful. Even a lot of the subplots result in darker material including a couple of suicides that makes for some shocking revelations. Outlaw is the kind of film that embraces a more pulpy and grindhouse tone and one that we haven’t seen taken to this extent previously for the blind samurai films.

Despite the fresh gritty feel and more violent content, the problem remains that Outlaw is a pretty scattered narrative. Due to more epic story content, the film has to introduce us to a lot of characters who don’t resonate as strongly and the film has to take a rather big tangent in the second act when Zatoichi goes into hiding as a masseur in another village that feels unnecessary at times. The chess game of yakuza is almost too complex for an hour and a half film and adding on a sort of farmer uprising just adds to the volume of story and characters the audience has to sift through. It gets to the point that both of the suicides in the film lack the emotional punch to sell the dark plot progression. One character is found hung by Zatoichi and instead of being ‘Oh my!,’ I spent the next three or four minutes trying to remember who that character was and why he was important. It undermines the emotional impact that scene should have had.

A perfect image for this film: bloody, disheveled, and determined.
Zatoichi the Outlaw is still an entertaining and ambitious film for a franchise that has seen itself stick to the formula for so long. The narrative is far more striving in reach, the content is darker and more violent, and Zatoichi continues to impress as a character who is left as a victim of circumstance.  There just happens to be less impact emotionally due to those same reasons and the film needed another half hour to really give us time to digest the various characters and motivations. Fans of more grindhouse inspired samurai fare will dig into this one for sure, others may have the same hesitations that I did. It’s good, but it could have been great.

Written By Matt Reifschneider

Friday, February 20, 2015

White Haired Witch (2015)

Director: Jacob Cheung Chi Leung
Notable Cast: Fan Bingbing, Huang Xiaoming, Vincent Zhao
Also Known As: The White Haired Witch of Lunar Kingdom

There is a very fine line when wrapping any kind of film in fantasy elements. It lends itself to some spectacular visuals, perhaps some fun moments even, but too often it drains a film of what the real focus should be: storytelling. For White Haired Witch (also known as The White Haired Witch of Lunar Kingdom outside of the US), the fantasy elements are meant to enhance a romantically driven wuxia war epic – but instead muddy the narrative. And that’s just one of the problems this film has. White Haired Witch is akin to navigating a massive hedge maze outside on a day that's 130 degrees. It's too long, frustrating to navigate, and while it seems like it should be a fun time, comes off as irritating and draining in the end. It has a few redeemable pieces, but in the end it’s a massive misfire.

When Zhuo Yihang (Huang Xiaoming) finds himself as the new head of Wudang, he finds himself framed for murder and relying on a rebel leader Jade Raksha (Fan Bingbing) who is herself being cornered by corrupt government officials. Together, they will have to find the strength to fight off an impending war and find the true villain behind it all…and perhaps find love, you know, while they’re at it.

There is most certainly a very cinematic film to be found at the core of White Haired Witch. Unfortunately, thanks to being based on one of those massively epic Chinese novels, it tries to stuff so much material into one film that there is not enough energy or time to make it work. Like the maze that the film was compared to earlier, White Haired Witch branches off to introduce a slew of characters, many of which appear for one or two scenes, and a plethora of tangent side stories – only to fail to give them depth or relevance and thusly collapse as a dead end. The other heroes of Wudang…who? Jade Raksha’s sister? She’s there for a couple of sweet fights. A random marriage plot for Zhuo Yihang to another woman? Sure. Let’s just jam it in there! To make these character arcs work for our two romantic protagonists - which is often a forced stretch itself, White Haired Witch has to move at the speed of light, which has the regrettable effect to leaving the audience confused and in the dust. 

On the plus side, the visuals are fun with the color schemes and big flamboyant cheesy sets – I saw Tsui Hark’s name in the opening credits as an artistic consultant – and the two or three action sequences are well designed wuxia sword fighting romps thanks to action direction by Stephen Tung, who did the extremely impressive War Fu flick Saving General Yang. The film also has the benefit of having the charismatic Vincent Zhao as the film’s villain. Watching him desperately try to add layers to a rather one note kind of character (who they give one scene of motivation at the end of the film…better late then never) is a bit of a struggle, but after the first 20 minutes of watching all of the actors struggle with the script made it a bit easier to swallow.

White Haired Witch is just one of those films that no matter how much talent or budget you throw at it, the script is flawed enough that all of the good pieces fall through the cracks. The narration is completely muddy and scattered, the acting is horrendously cheesy to go with some of the eye rolling romantic moments - the last five minutes had me in a fit of laughter, which is never good for what should be bringing tears to my eyes, and the fantasy elements only make for the proceeding darker moments of war torn people and political undertones feel at battle with one another. Sure, it has a handful of solid wuxia fights and seeing Vincent Zhao as an evil badass worked for me, but overall White Haired Witch is a pretty giant missed opportunity through and through. Stick with Painted Skin: The Resurrection if you want some crazy fantasy wuxia. Or better yet, go watch Ronny Yu's The Bride with White Hair. I’m going to see if I can somehow find my way out of this damn maze now. 

Written By Matt Reifschneider

Everly (2015)

Director: Joe Lynch
Notable Cast: Salma Hayek, Akie Kotabe, Hiroyuki Wantanabe, Laura Cepeda, Togo Igawa, Aisha Ayamah

“That’s a lot of dead whores.”

After the debacle of edits and release dates that plagued Joe Lynch’s last picture Knights of Badassdom, it was somewhat of a relief to see his next picture Everly pop up so quickly. I had my hesitations for a horror and humor director to take his craft into the action realm. Yet Lynch’s obvious love for grindhouse and cult action cinema shines brightly in Everly as the film mixes the influences of early Robert Rodriguez and Takashi Miike into a rather potent and extraordinarily fun film. It’s the kind of picture that might alienate a more mainstream audience with its quirky humor and gore, but for genre fans it’s the kind of flick that hits all of the right buttons in the right sequences.

Everly (Hayek) has had enough. After being kidnapped and made to be the slave girlfriend of yakuza boss Taiko (Wantanabe), she finds herself at the end of her rope. With a young daughter being brought up by her mother, she makes the decision to get out no matter the cost…or die trying.

Ready. Aim. HOLY SHIT!
As it was mentioned above, there are a few reasons why Everly was dumped to VOD and limited theatrical releases. Namely, it’s the kind of weird action flick that a mainstream American audience simply would not grasp and support. Hayek, despite a spot on turn as the titular heroine in the film, is not the A-list name she was ten years ago and Lynch as a director is something of big name mostly in cult circles. This doesn’t stop either of them from giving Everly their all and really maximizing the material to its full modern grindhouse potential.

The term ‘weird’ is used in a lovingly way with Everly too. On top of the rather cut and dry concept at play here with the ‘escape the building’ idea and the video game like waves of baddies that show up to prevent such (complete with boss battles like The Sadist and Attack Dog), Everly uses its Japanese yakuza streaks to outrageous benefit. There is a definite Miike influence in many of these aspects, particularly the use of gore and dark humor in balance with one another that brings to mind the era of Ichi the Killer, and this is combined with a more streamlined and Hollywood punch tactic. The film does take some strange turns – including the previously mentioned Sadist character and a brief leap into some horror components, but it flows pretty impressively between the various influences and styles.

Shockingly, Everly packs some dramatic aspects to balance out the fun grindhouse pieces. While the inclusion of her daughter and mother seems a bit forced in moments, Lynch and company play it pretty close to the chest and throw some great curves into that plot progression to make it work. There is even a great sort of friendship dynamic that the Everly character makes with one of the yakuza men she has shot. Not to mention the final moments of the film with the slow chimes of a Christmas song that punctuates the more dramatic beats in the film. So for those questioning the sheer absurdity of Everly, know that it does throw in just enough depth to balance it out. 

Talk about 'bullet to the head.'
While the expectations for Everly were mixed to begin with, the resulting film was much more entertaining and effective than one could have hoped for. Lynch has an obvious love for the grindhouse action films of yesteryear, but the modern sensibilities to not make the film an homage to such. The results are gory, funny, and amusing to say the least. Everly is a massive surprise this year even if it’s more or less geared towards the vulgar auteur crowd.

Written by Matt Reifschneider

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Re:Action - Why Modern Action Movies Need to Embrace the Shaw Brothers Formula

Why Modern Action Movies Need To Embrace The Shaw Brothers Formula

*fan fare*

When one looks into the history of action films, the genre hasn’t been around nearly as long as one would think. In the 60s and 70s, most films were crime thrillers with some action sequences instead of the films that we associate with the term ‘action film.’ Even early James Bond films, which more or less laid most of the groundwork for the blockbuster concept, were almost more adventure film than anything else. The same can be said of the westerns that Hollywood had already been producing for decades by that time. When one looks at the time and evolution of film in this aspect, the combination of espionage thriller, swashbuckling films, and westerns was spun into the Japanese chambara flick – or as they are commonly called, the samurai film.

The key to this brief film history lesson is not necessarily to educate one on the evolution of the action film, but it’s a comparison to what the modern action film looks like. We were able to see Sean Connery leap from an exploding island fortress in 1962’s Dr. No, but the movie itself was built as an espionage film that many younger action fans might scoff at for being relatively ‘slow’ in comparison to where the genre has evolved since then. The same can be said about key films that inspired the direction of a blooming genre like The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly or Bullit.

To get to the main point of this article, it was Hong Kong cinema and most importantly the Shaw Brothers production company, that converted the action film into a genre all of its own – at the same time producing a new genre in martial arts that would become a massively embraced aspect of all action film making in subsequent decades. Taking the lessons of samurai storytelling and the tongue in cheek adventure of what espionage and swashbuckling pirate films were becoming, the Shaw Brothers did a variety of things to craft a formula and foundation into what damn near every action film has used to this day.

Unfortunately, in the last decade or so, there has been a move away from some impactful elements that Shaw Brothers perfected in their relatively short (but productive) time in the film history. Seeing the cringe worthy Taken 3 only reaffirms that Hollywood – and the world – needs to move away from technology reliance and techniques that have plagued the action film scene for too long and diluted the iconic genre into the castrated form that we too often see. Action films need to go back to their roots and looking at the Shaw Brothers film collection will aid in this task. The following five ways outline how the Shaw Brothers can impact modern action films.

Crippled Avengers
SIMPLIFY. When one looks back at why Shaw Brothers’ kung fu films became an international sensation, there is one simple answer. These films are not complicated. By the time that Shaw Brothers developed their formula for a film (thanks to long running directors Chang Cheh and Lau Kar Leung) it was a simple one. Rarely did the films feel the need to drown the audience in exposition. Even the more epic tactics of the wuxia genre (massive stories about sword fighters with near inhuman abilities), like Duel of the Century or damn near anything crafted by Chor Yuen, rarely spent time ‘catching us up’ on previous events or characters. You jumped in or you were left behind. This was one story with definable characteristics that an audience could consume with ease. Many films created universes to exist in, they never needed to treat the audience like children by babbling on and on about context. Occasionally, a modern action film gets this right – the incredible and efficient John Wick for example, but it’s too rare. Simplify!

CHARACTERS. Not only in modern action, but in every genre, Hollywood seems desperate to appeal to the widest fan base as possible. Unfortunately, this requires main characters to be drab and as relatable as possible. More often than not these tactics make the characters less interesting. Since the release of Taken, how many ‘good fathers in a bad situation’ characters are we going to see replicated? How many are that interesting?  For the Shaw Brothers, not only were characters lush with broad stroke aspects, but they were memorable. Wang Kang in The One-Armed Swordsman was a deep and torn character, fringing on being an anti-hero, but his portrayal by the illustrious Jimmy Wang Yu is universal. Action films should follow this kind of formula more often. Writers should create characters and allow the actors and director to develop a meaningful human bond.

Not only were lead characters fun and exciting, they were surrounded by other characters that were bigger than life too. When one looks at why the Venom Mob was so successful after the release of The Five Deadly Venoms, it’s because their onscreen chemistry and charm were better when they were together. The characters were often silly and simple ones, but they were brought to life by these traits and the sheer fun (still serious streaks) that they brought to the screen. Justin Lin’s entrance into the Fast & Furious franchise is a perfect example of this idea in practice. He gave secondary characters a chance to be bigger than life; subsequently, the respective actors and actresses owned those roles.

The One-Armed Swordsman
EMBRACE THE GIMMICK. When the Shaw Brothers Company was producing double-digit films in one year, they understood that saturation was inevitable and utilized this aspect to maintain a sense of freshness to the formula. This is how we get classics like Crippled Avengers where four men with various disabilities have to overcome them with specialized kung fu to take down a treacherous ruler. It sounds ridiculous, but like I mentioned previously, the film owns its outrageous concept and delivers big entertainment, as well as some rather heartfelt moments. We are now past three decades of action films and originality isn’t all that original anymore. Saturation is nigh. This leaves films with only the opportunity to feel fresh rather than be fresh. One can do this by embracing the gimmick. Take the weird or silly premise, character, or plot and run with it. This is why last year’s Guardians of the Galaxy was so effective. We had big characters in a weird world that never should have been relatable in any way. James Gunn and Marvel ran with the gimmick, embraced it for all of its quirky glory, and delivered a stand out and hilarious action flick. None of us were the wiser that it was completely built on standard action tropes and characters because it felt fresh.

THE ACTION. This is perhaps one of my biggest complaints with modern action films. Too often newer flicks rely on ‘spectacle’ and ‘style’ to sell their action sequences. The truth of the matter remains, most of these directors have no idea how to craft an action sequence – whether it’s pacing, editing, or plot relevance. The Shaw Brothers, however, rarely ever got this wrong. Time and time again, classic directors and choreographers from the Shaw Brothers studio showcased a knowledge and expertise on how to stage space, movement, and intensity for action scenes. Even the most gimmick riddled and physics defying films had a knack for being breathtaking and relevant. Whether it was the multi-fight trident piercing finale in Masked Avengers or the sheer showmanship of martial arts speed and style switch up throughout Martial Club with the iconic Gordon Liu, the Shaw Brothers are a choreographer’s dream come true. Few modern films are able to navigate such flow and thoughtfulness in their choreography with how people and/or objects move through an environment. One that does come to mind as a great example is Ninja II: Shadow of a Tear. The combined talents of director Isaac Florentine, star Scott Adkins, and fight director Tim Mann, is pure action brilliance. It’s not flashy. It’s not spectacle. It’s true action through and through.

Martial Club
ENTERTAINMENT. I don’t care how snooty one is about film as art – or how one believes film should reflect life, in some way, shape, or form – film has to entertain. A great drama still entertains enough to hook the viewer. There is a sect of individuals out there that will, to their greatest abilities, take a silly concept action film and try to make it arthouse. Some of those folks succeed (Luc Besson’s La Femme Nikita) and some of those folks completely fail (Michael Bay’s Pain and Gain). This is a lesson easily learned by revisiting the films of the Shaw Brothers. To be profitable, the company had to fill seats and the easiest way to do so was by entertaining their audience. Sure, some films feel redundant at times because of the formula, but even when the company went for more dramatic fare (King Hu’s samurai inspired Come Drink with Me or the epic Five Shaolin Masters) there is always a sense that the human aspect and depth fed into the entertainment factor and not against it. The foremost goal of these classic martial arts films was to entertain the audience as action flicks and if the story and thoughtfulness of its dramatic beats fit in, then all the better!

The modern action film is not something to scoff at – it’s a money making viable option for great film production. It’s simply unfortunate that too many films have lost the balance and foundations that worked in the past. This is where knowing history can be helpful. The Shaw Brothers collection of films is one of the most robust in the world and young directors and producers should pay more attention to why they have amassed a cult audience. Directors like Chang Cheh, choreographers like Lau Kar Leung, and actors like Ti Lung or Jimmy Wang Yu, are iconic in the genre and have action star legacies lasting decades after newer films have faded. As the genre evolves with new technology and stylistic choices, one can only hope that the lessons of the Hong Kong titans will remain a foundation of the future.

*If you are new to the Shaw Brothers film collection, you can do yourself a favor and watch a few of the titles mentioned in this article. Celestial Pictures, legal owners of all Shaw Brothers materials, has recently been releasing the archives to purchase or rent digitally on various formats like iTunes, Hulu (for free with advertising!), and Google Play. It’s only the tip of the iceberg for a studio that released hundreds of action films in the span of three decades, give or take, but you have to start somewhere - I highly suggest it. You can check out the iTunes collection HERE, the Hulu collection HERE, and the YouTube collection HERE

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Exists (2014)

Director: Eduardo Sanchez
Notable Cast: Chris Osborn, Dora Madison Burge, Roger Edwards, Denise Williamson, Samuel Davis, Brian Steele

While Eduardo Sanchez couldn’t seemingly translate the success of The Blair Witch Project into major films for major studios, he has found a ton of success riding the undercurrents of the horror scene in low budget features that really work for his style. Whether it was his intense science fiction romp Altered or the dark and gritty psychology of Lovely Molly, Sanchez has cut some pretty solid features. After a return to found footage in a short in V/H/S/2, Sanchez takes on the format once more with his Bigfootsploitation flick Exists. While the film still succeeds in many regards, this is handedly my least favorite from the horror auteur and eventually drifts into being a little too safe and not being dynamic enough overall.

When it comes to secluded cabins for friends to party at, two brothers have the best one that their uncle owns. When they get there though, they find out that the place isn’t quite as secluded as one would expect…and the noises and footprints around the area are only the beginning of the terror they will experience.

Basements are traps. We've learned this before.
As far as Bigfootsploitation goes, there are so many worse films than Exists. Like…a lot worse. It just so happens though that due to the director, there are high hopes and certain expectations that come with Exists and the film has trouble living up to those expectations. So let’s start with where this film does succeed. Sanchez has always had a knack for pacing perfection and that still rests in this film. Due to a lacking script and characters, Sanchez does rightfully keep Exists at a lightning quick pacing and it’s a film that deserves that kind of efficiency. It also has some really fun set pieces within its relentless drive – a camper wreck is wonderfully shot and set up in the limited scope of found footage. This kind of knack for filmmaking and creativity in limited boundaries is where Sanchez struts his stuff.

Unfortunately, outside of those moments of fun and the pacing, Exists does exactly what its title says: no more and no less. The characters are poorly built paper-thin examples of the cliché protagonists of any ‘cabin in the woods’ horror flick, the plot is even less fleshed out, and many of the scares and tense moments are of a ‘been there, done that’ fare. Sanchez might have a knack for making material out of nothing, but here he seems a bit on autopilot. By the time we get to the ‘why’ for all of the ‘what,’ one rarely cares what is going to happen let alone if the twist is going to be relevant to the ending. Exists just exists and doesn’t seem intent on making much of an impact.

Bigfoot big jump.
With a different context, Exists might have been a fun B-grade horror flick. At this point though, there are enough found footage horror films that this one feels uninspired and hum-drum as it plays out the basics. Sanchez has a long and fruitful career in front of him, so don’t judge it on one misfire.

Written By Matt Reifschneider

Kingsman: The Secret Service (2015)

Director: Matthew Vaughn
Notable Cast: Taron Egerton, Colin Firth, Mark Strong, Samuel L. Jackson, Michael Caine, Sofia Boutella, Jack Davenport, Mark Hamill

“I'm a Catholic whore, currently enjoying congress out of wedlock with my black Jewish boyfriend who works at a military abortion clinic. Hail Satan, and have a lovely afternoon madam.” --Harry

Matthew Vaughn took Hollywood by storm with his double feature of Kick-Ass and X-Men: First Class, even though he had already been a name staple previously when partnered with Guy Ritchie. However, the double dose of awesomeness that is the previously mentioned films made him an A-list director here in the US. For his latest feature though, Vaughn and company takes a decidedly old school concept and slather it in modern style. Kingsman: The Secret Service is wholly homage to the days of outrageous gentlemen spy films, but completely stands on its own as a massively charming and entertaining picture. It packs wit, punch, and tongue firmly in cheek to be one of the most amusing films of the year.

For Eggsy (Egerton), life has been rough. His dad has been dead most of his life and his mom runs a circle of bad life choices for her family. When a well-dressed and mysterious gentleman Harry (Firth) shows up to bail him out of jail one day, Eggsy embarks on a new chapter – as a Kingsman recruit trained to be the best of the best in spies. His skills will be tested when an outrageous villain Valentine (Jackson) decides the world needs to fall to its knees though.

The glasses, man. It's all in the glasses.
Perhaps the greatest compliment one can bestow onto Kingsman is that, like Vaughn’s Kick-Ass, it’s a film utterly self aware of its genre and style. It plays into tropes of the spectacle wrapped spy film and at the same time knows when to break the mold for a modern audience. There are multiple scenes where Firth and Jackson make straight up references in the dialogue to the big influence of James Bond in the film and this sort of acknowledgment of its roots makes for far more enjoyable experiences throughout. Kingsman knows what it is and simply plays the audiences’ expectations as such. Whether it’s the villain, the dastardly ‘new world order plot’ pulled straight from The Spy Who Loved Me, or the terrible one liners, Kingsman owns its history.

What’s even better is that everyone involved seems in on the entire concept. Jackson, even with a rather surface level villain, utterly eats his role whole, one can barely see The King’s Speech Colin Firth for all of the charm and badassness he throws on display here, and the secondary cast of Mark Strong and Michael Caine make for limitless possibilities in the film. Yet, it’s the sheer charm and swagger of Egerton as the young spy recruit that carries a lot for Kingsman. Never once did I feel a dreaded Baby Bond vibe from him that would reignite my nightmares about Agent Cody Banks, but instead he feels perfectly suited for the role and blends right into the rest of the cast effortlessly.

Vaughn does do himself a favor (and from a blessing from his studio, I’m sure) and Kingsman perfectly adheres to its ‘R’ rating. The violence in the film – which is key to its plot, believe it or not – is astounding in comparison to the rather cut and tailored feel of its characters: a balance that works splendidly. The film plays things edgy with its political undertones of satire and never before have you see Firth in a massively violent church riot (which is as awesome as it sounds) that leaves a body count well into the double digits, but the lack of a safety net modernizes the rather Bond-like plot to a new audience and one that will bite into it with satisfaction.

The church scene just might go down in history.
Kingsman is not perfect and often many of the training sequences seem a little drug out for the sake of giving us more spectacle, but the film is a rather brilliant slice of new meets old for fans of the smirking espionage genre. Vaughn knows how the film should play out to balance the elements of each and combined with top notch productions and a cast that’s willing and able to play up to the charm and edge needed, this film is the perfect kick off for a new franchise. It’s an immensely entertaining romp and one that come highly recommended.

Written By Matt Reifschneider

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Come Drink with Me (1966)

Director: King Hu
Notable Cast: Cheng Pei-Pei, Yueh Hua, Chan Hung-lit, Lee Wan-Chung, Ku Feng

In the early years of the Shaw Brothers company, the studio struggled to really find their own voice and style in movie making. With the help of some visionary directors and brilliant actor signings though, they quickly found their path. One of the first films to establish Shaw Brothers in the direction is the iconic Come Drink with Me. The first and only film that King Hu produced for Shaw Brothers, this martial arts film is both grounded and epic, delivering insightful characters with focused and detailed visuals. It is easily one of the best martial arts movies ever delivered.

When the young son of a high ranking official is kidnapped by a vicious gang, they demand their leader be released from prison or he will die. The government has other plans and they send a deadly assassin named Golden Swallow (Cheng Pei-Pei) to negotiate with the gang. On her way there though, she encounters a talented drunken fighter Drunk Cat (Yueh Hua) who complicates things…but may have a solution to all of the problems.

Surrounded...but not done for.
While Cheng Pei-Pei garnered a lot of attention for her portrayal of the heroic and deadly Golden Swallow for this (enough so to spawn one sequel for the character), the most intriguing aspect is that she is only one of two protagonists. As the film starts off, it focuses in on Golden Swallow and her quest to find the gang that has an official held hostage. By about half way through though, the film shifts to add and then focus on Drunk Cat and his story. By the final act, Golden Swallow has all by disappeared from the narrative – particularly as the audience learns of the gang’s connection with Drunk Cat’s brother. The final duel doesn’t even have Golden Swallow in it. Luckily, Come Drink with Me rocks the narrative so well and King Hu executes it with such flow, that this unusual shift in story focus and character focus feels utterly natural and effective.

The rest of the film is also of this high quality. Come Drink with Me features a slew of impressive performances, top-notch effects, and stellar fight pieces. King Hu takes his knack for paining visuals (seriously he lathers each shot in layers and depth) and uses the scoreless fight pieces to punctuate the combined efforts of the other elements of the film. The fighting is not the highly technical work you might see in later Shaw Brothers productions and is more akin to the brief bursts that one would see in a samurai flick, but it’s effective and still impressive. The film also makes great use of it’s locations and deep thoughtful set pieces. Whether it’s the inn where a good portion of the first act occurs or the house of Drunk Cat, King Hu and company make use of locations to really help paint the story.

Just look at the depth and lighting of that set! Stellar!
Come Drink with Me is a lot different than one would expect from a Shaw Brothers production thanks to a story and character driven design that pulls away from the action set pieces and focuses a bit more on atmosphere. The resulting film though is massively impressive with its twisting plot progressions and deep thoughtful character work brought to life from high end performances the steep visual work of director King Hu. This is the kind of film every martial arts fan should have, if not worship, for it’s strengths and unique turns.

Written By Matt Reifschneider

Sunday, February 8, 2015

Shadow Boxing, The (1979)

Director: Lau Kar Leung
Notable Cast: Wong Yu, Cecilia Wong, Gordon Liu, Lau Kar Wing

Lau Kar Leung’s career as a director and choreographer took some unique turns during his time with the Shaw Brothers and one of the more interesting twists of style comes in the form of The Shadow Boxing. Also known as The Spiritual Boxer II, this film ably mixes a variety of styles and genres to tell its story of a ‘corpse herder’ and his involvement with an underhanded murder conspiracy. While the resulting film doesn’t top the charts in any of the various genres it uses, it’s hard not to have a fun time with the film in the end.

A corpse herder (Lau Kar Wing) and his apprentice (Wong Yu) have one hell of a job to do as they have to transport 9 dead men to their various home towns. The way that they accomplish this is by using various spells to have the dead transport themselves under their guidance at night – hopping vampire style. Unfortunately they have one corpse (Gordon Liu) that seems to be giving them a lot of trouble and when they accidentally uncover a murder conspiracy on their trek – they might have to use their spiritual boxing kung fu to just make it home.

To be perfectly honest, I’ve never seen the first Spiritual Boxer film so I have no idea how much this sequel is connected to it, but it is quite obvious that one doesn’t have to see it to enjoy part two. Don’t let the use of the Chinese hopping vampires trick you though, this film has little to no horror elements on display here. It’s quite upfront with its kung fu comedy hijinks. Whether it’s watching Gordon Liu hopping as fast as possible while being chased or the sort of fish-out-of-water elements when our main protagonist must take on his own apprentice in the second half and teach her, trial by fire, how to handle vampires, The Shadow Boxing is certain to hit a few funny bones in the process. It doesn’t always work in the most efficient manner, but it’s damn fun and entertaining.

Silly vampires and their not being dead and stuffs.
Being as the legendary Lau Kar Leung directs this film, it’s quite expected that the film would have plenty of kung fu on display. The Shadow Boxing isn’t his normally fast paced and highly technical choreography, as it tends to use most of its kung fu set pieces for comedic effect, but it does retain that same entertaining value that the comedy elements bring to the film. Wong Yu performs a sort of hopping vampire influenced style of kung fu, complete with plenty of gimmicks and silly moves, and this makes for most of the memorable pieces in the film. Sure, seeing Gordon Liu show up in the finale with his deadly Eagle Claw kung fu lends a more traditional feel to the end, but he’s more or less shown up in most sequences by our main protagonist. A weird thing to say as a huge fan of Gordon Liu myself, but the film was never his vehicle.

This is not a film for everyone and many kung fu connoisseurs may not dig into the film as the comedy comes first and foremost in how it proceeds to tell its story. However, the blend of kung fu and comedy works for the story and it remains a massively amusing film with plenty of charm to spare. The Shadow Boxing is not going to be making my list of best Shaw Brothers flicks, but you could easily do worse than this.

Written By Matt Reifschneider

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Zatoichi's Cane Sword (1967)

Director: Kimiyoshi Yasuda
Notable Cast: Shintaro Katsu, Shiho Fujimura, Eijiro Tono, Yoshihiko Aoyama, Tatsuo Endo, Masumi Harukawa, Makoto Fujita, Kiyoko Suizenji, Masako Akeboshi, Fujio Suga

“You know, Boss, I’m not the only blind man here. There’s not a man in this room that can see. That’s why I decided to drop in. I figured it must be a gambling joint for blind folk.”

On my trek to work my way through the Zatoichi franchise, there is one thing that has shown through as the key for the continued quality throughout each flick: story telling. While the samurai sword slashing action is usually a fun aspect to the films, the story has always come first. For the fifteenth film featuring our favorite neighborhood blind swordsman, Zatoichi’s Cane Sword, it’s this reliance on strong story telling that makes it so damn good.

Zatoichi (Shintaro Katsu), while on the road, finds himself traveling with a theater troupe to a small village. When there, he discovers an old man who tells him that his cane sword only has one more kill in it before it will break from his continued use. Taking this as a sign to give up his life as a wandering samurai, he becomes a resident masseur at a local in. It’s here that he learns of a new and dastardly boss looking to confiscate all the businesses under his wing. Zatoichi, who has taken to the family who has taken him in, prepares to defend them with or without his fabled blade.

Visual depth that only these films can obtain.
Once again, Zatoichi’s Cane Sword is the kind of film that plays out naturally and with remarkable flow as it builds its story and character. More akin to earlier films in the series, it actually pulls away from the action and instead focuses on a more character driven thriller aspect instead. Discussions about Zatoichi’s cane sword are played with the deepest of thoughtfulness, stressing how the blade has become as much of him as a personality, and this breathes extensive (and rather refreshing) new elements to the Zatoichi character. Combined with the stellar secondary performances from various cast members, including a phenomenal performance from Shiho Fujimura as the head strong daughter of the family that takes Zatoichi in, the story damn near tells itself under the guiding hand of director Kimiyoshi Yasuda.

"You've got 99 problems and your sword is one."
It’s enough so that the lacking action of the first two acts rarely affects the audience from understanding the fear of the villains or how naked Zatoichi himself feels without his titular sword. It builds and builds, layering on frustration by how the plot is fitting against our heroic blind samurai, that when the final act erupts in action – notably against a gentle snow fall in the dead of night – it’s a release of energy that pours from the screen. At this point, we get to see plenty of Zatoichi tropes and formulas that an audience would expect from the franchise – including Zatoichi’s continued and almost humorous confidence displayed in his ‘duck song’ and dance routine as he entertains the villains and a moment where he (quite literally) cuts his way out of a barrel while killing a handful of baddies, but the film is built so that none of it feels tired or worn.

Duck Song. Seriously.
Zatoichi’s Cane Sword is not perfect, as there are almost too many characters and too much story to feel completely drawn into the various conspiracies and villainous tactics, but the brisk ability of the film to tell its tale and still drive a handful of character arcs is very impressive. The finale fight is something to be remembered too by Zatoichi fans. After the stumble in quality that was Zatoichi’s Pilgrimage, this fifteenth entry comes as a wonderful return to form.

Written By Matt Reifschneider