Monday, January 26, 2015

Brotherhood of Blades (2015)

Director: Lu Yang
Notable Cast: Chang Chen, Chin Shih-chieh, Ye Qing, Wang Qianyuan, Li Dongxue, Nie Yuan, Zhao Lixin, Qiao Lei, Yang Yi, Gu Dian, Ye Xiangming, Yang Xiaobo

The wuxia genre has seen its fair share of evolutionary changes and most recently it has taken to being a rather artistic and epic affair thanks to filmmakers like Zhang Yimou. There have been a few films that harken back towards the more classic (and pulpy) wuxia style like 14 Blades, but it’s usually either one or the other. Rarely does one find a film that blends a slick modern visual style of modern Hong Kong and the classic old school foundations for the genre. Not only does Brotherhood of Blades do that, but it also efficiently blends the two in such a way as to be a massively entertaining action packed ride and a heartfelt and dramatic tale.

As the governing body of the Chinese government desperately looks to weed out corruption, they task three of their best Imperial Assassins (Chang Chen, Chin Shih-chieh, Ye Qing) to find and eliminate the head of the movement. Unknown to them, the assassins’ task is steeped in political upheaval and their mission will leave them on the wrong end of the blade.

Brothers in arms.
To throw a bit of context to this review, it was completely unexpected that this film would be such a phenomenal piece of work. Sure, it was nominated for a handful of Golden Horse awards (the Hong Kong version of the Oscars) in a slew of categories like best actor, supporting actor, action choreography and make-up and costume design, but usually that means the film is more artsy and less dynamic. Brotherhood of Blades is DYNAMIC. All caps. It works on so many levels that I may have watched it three times in one day. In a row. On repeat.

The film, first and foremost, solidifies itself as a classic style wuxia. The story is based on loyalty, betrayal, love, and honor as we follow the rather edgy lives of three ‘brothers’ in the Imperial Assassins. We see them betrayed by the very officials that they placed their faith and loyalty in and then they have to fight their way out. Like the classic Shaw Brothers wuxia of 70s and 80s, the film moves at an efficient and quick pace, intertwining the character beats of our three heroes with bombastic action set pieces. Sleek visuals from director Lu Yang punctuate the fight work, where there are big multi-tiered fights among rain, fire, and snow as if the film didn’t think it was quite dynamic enough, and the impact of the fights actually move both plot and character arcs forward – a task that is often overlooked in modern action cinema far too often.

No chains can hold him!
Even outside of the engaging entertainment value of the film as an action flick, there is quite the heart to Brotherhood of Blades. The combined acting efforts of the three leading men, along with a rather large and yet utterly memorable and valuable secondary cast, deepens the overall effectiveness of the standard betrayal/loyalty martial arts themes. Layers of character personalities are peeled away in quick effectual dialogue (learning of the dreams, problems, and loves of these three men is almost as entertaining as the slick modern sword fighting) and by the time shit truly hits the fan in the third act the film had me hooked and emotional.

Carry on.
That is the brilliance of Brotherhood of Blades. On one side, the film contains plenty of modern visuals and a slightly askew narrative that uses non-linear leaps for emotional punch. On the other, this film could have easily starred Ti Lung, David Chiang, and Fu Sheng and been one of the biggest grossing wuxia films for the Shaw Brothers in 1978 with its classic themes and characters. Yet, the true highlight of the film is just how unbelievably smooth the blending of both of those sides are. The film is beautiful and lush in its look and design. The fights are ambitious and exciting. The story is classic and still refreshing in its character build. Brotherhood of Blades is one of the best martial arts films in the last 30 years. Chang Cheh would be proud.
Seriously though, I’m adding a couple of pre-order links below this. Buy it. It drops on February 10th from the iconic Well Go USA.

Written By Matt Reifschneider

Saturday, January 24, 2015

Knock Knock (2015)

No Official Poster Has Been Released At This Time
Director: Eli Roth
Notable Cast: Keanu Reeves, Lorenza Izzo, Ana de Armas, Ignacia Allamand, Aaron Burns, Colleen Camp

One of the things that I enjoy about Eli Roth and his films is that weird ability they have to create a divide in horror fans. Half of my horror friends love him, the other half despise him. I’m not necessarily the biggest fan of his movies overall and his writing is always shaky at best, but I appreciate his dedication to his own style. This is why I was so curious about Knock Knock. For his latest venture into the horror foray, Roth ditches his gore fever for a more classic femme fatale home invasion flick. While I appreciate his leap into a new sub-genre of horror, Knock Knock is a rather mixed bag overall. One that will most certainly be divisive among the horror community.

Evan (Reeves) is a good man, a good husband, and a loving father to his two kids. When his family heads out of town to the beach, he’s stuck at home working diligently on his architectural work. During a rainy night though, two mysterious young women arrive on his doorstep. Being the good man that he is, he invites them in out of the rain and tries to help them with their problems. Unfortunately, they seem to have different ideas about what he can help them with.

There is an obvious blend of Fatal Attraction and Funny Games on display with Knock Knock that most horror fans will latch onto immediately. Conceptionally, Roth once again harkens back a few decades for inspiration for the film and in many ways he modernizes it to work in a new age of digital media, social networking, and information flow. Unfortunately, while the intriguing bends of how to create that ‘horror is isolation’ aspect doesn’t always work for the narrative and often it blooms into some massive plot holes that leaves the audience having to push aside their own sense of disbelief to continue with the film. Partnered with Eli Roth’s own ability to make things seem over-the-top, Knock Knock struggles a bit to execute what it wants exactly.

Cooking is deadly.
A lot of the issues that arise in this throw back, tense sexual thriller come from it existing in two different realms. The first realm is what Knock Knock wants to be – a tense, frustrating man-in-a-maze film. The plot remains purposefully vague in many ways, including the exact whys and whos for the femme fatale villains of the flick, as not to detract from the in the moment suspense. Roth does his best to blend his own outrageous style (and humor) into a film that doesn’t necessarily fit his strengths. It’s admirable in many ways to see how much Knock Knock pulls away from going too far with its horror and really attempts to build atmosphere. It definitely goes all the way with the sex and the sexual aspect, but that seemed par for the course if you have seen any of his previous films.

The other realm that Knock Knock exists in was just briefly alluded to – the Eli Roth film we know and expect. His patented brash and dark humor bubbles up in spades, including a final moment featuring Facebook, and the film tends to really dig down and start using the grindhouse exploitative elements to reach the places it wants to go. The tension is built with obvious broad stroke plot devices (including sex, nudity, and dialogue) and unlike the films that Knock Knock strives to be, it struggles with subtlety to get there. It certainly doesn’t help that Keanu Reeves has a pretty limited range of acting and by the finale he’s pushing his own boundaries in very unbelievable manners. In a way, this film is far more entertaining than it is ‘good’ and I would suspect that is just how the director wanted it.

As silly as it may seem, Knock Knock is just kind of an awkward movie. It’s obvious that Roth wants to add more ridiculousness to the proceedings, but feels inclined to pull back and try and devote more time to tension and atmosphere – which are not necessarily his strong points as a writer or director. The humor is fairly spot on and the ridiculousness of the plot is fun in a grindhouse gimmick technique, but Knock Knock almost feels too reserved for its own good and it feels like a director who purposefully chained himself to try something new. I will say this: I was massively entertained by the film and, quite frankly, that's the biggest win this film could achieve here.

BLOODY PRAISE: During my film festival screening, a dozen people walked out of the movie. I would say twice as many as that gave it a standing ovation at the end. So yes, the film is a bit dividing in how it goes about things. 

Written By Matt Reifschneider

Friday, January 23, 2015

Zatoichi's Pilgrimage (1966)

Director: Kazuo Ikehiro
Notable Cast: Shintaro Katsu, Michiyo Okusu, Isao Yamagata, Hisashi Igawa, Masao Mishima, Kunie Tanaka

After the startling and praise worthy potency of Chess Expert and Vengeance, I almost expected the Zatoichi franchise to be hitting a second ‘golden era’ after the first four films rattled my world. Then, of course, I saw that Zatoichi’s Pilgrimage, the fourteenth film in the series, was directed by Kazuo Ikehiro. While the name might not ring a bell for most folks, he previously directed two other links in the Zatoichi chain, both of which lie towards the end of my favorites. I kept optimistic though and went into the film with lofty expectations. Only to have them semi-crushed by the rather generic film on hand here. There are a few things to enjoy and love in Zatoichi’s Pilgrimage, but after the heights reached in the twelfth and thirteenth entries it’s hard not to be pretty disappointed.

Zatoichi (Shintaro Katsu) is on a pilgrimage. While on a trip to visit 88 shrines to find forgiveness for all of the people he has killed in his travels, he just so happens to kill one more. This one was sent by a conniving landlord and horseman Tohachi (Yamagata) just to have the would-be assassin killed. Zatoichi seeks out the man’s family and finds himself, once again, a make shift hero for a village cowering in fear.

Zatoichi don't take no ship.
At this point, the Zatoichi series has not only established a formula, but it’s perfected it. So depending on the film, it’s the execution of the idea that’s wrapped around the formula that determines whether it’s good or not. After the last two films, Pilgrimage simply seems…lazy. The film starts off on the right foot, Zatoichi – once again played to the nines by Katsu – is on a ship heading for his pilgrimage when he meets a cocky thief. You can probably guess where it goes from there. The unique setting of the ship and the glorious Zatoichi moment here is played up to Ikehiro’s grindhouse style that he used to heavy effect in Chest of Gold. Unfortunately, this sort of fun moment quickly descends into mediocrity though.

A close shave.
The majority of the film is then spent sort of building the same plot and characters we have seen a few times before in this series. The lead female role is decent, but rarely as engaging as the some of the ones prior and our blind hero seems to run through the motions that is really only sold by Katsu’s continued fluidity and charm of the character. Pilgrimage is giving a fun almost spaghetti western vibe with its dusty summer village setting and the true highlight of the film comes in the form of the villain – a horse riding, arrow toting, beer belly dragging scumbag that steals damn near every scene he’s in.

While the majority of the film sort of meanders about with its generic plot, the film does pick up in the last 15 to 20 minutes for the finale. Ikehiro may utterly miss the opportunities to deepen the characters or give the plot meaning, but the man knows how to shoot an action set piece to its greatest grindhouse entertaining value. Pilgrimage really owns it at this point and plays up the arrow vs sword, hero vs villain aspect to some massively entertaining results. Even in one of the mid way sequences there is a fun moment where Zatoichi splits an arrow with a barely drawn sword that might be one of the cooler moments of the series thus far.

Yes, the bad guys are still outnumbered.
Zatoichi’s Pilgrimage might be entertaining in its opening and its finale where Ikehiro uses his talents as a grindhouse style director to full benefit, but the rest of the film is a sort of wash. It lacks a lot of the depth of storytelling and the flow of narrative that has made the best Zatoichi films the high quality films that they are. Pilgrimage is a fun movie in moments, but it really lacks the oomph to take it to the next level.

Written By Matt Reifschneider

Masked Avengers (1981)

Director: Chang Cheh
Notable Cast: Philip Kwok, Lu Feng, Chiang Sheng, Chu Ko, Chin Siu-Ho, Wang Li

The greatest part about Chang Cheh’s filmography is that the man is pretty diverse even while working within the confines of the Shaw Brothers studio. He can deliver a thoughtful and dramatic flick (The One-Armed Swordsman) or he can deliver an utterly over the top, outrageous gimmick film (The Crippled Avengers) and succeed at both. Sometimes he balances the two stylistic approaches within a single film, like for the Masked Avengers, and still finds a way to make it work. For this Venom Mob flick, he takes a super dark and serious story and injects just enough fun and outrageousness to make it fit in a surprisingly charming way.

A team of hired guards has been tasked with finding, disrupting, and destroying the vicious gang known as The Masked Avengers. When one of their own is found dead at the hands of this evil and villainous group, they find themselves in a small town with a variety of suspects they believe to be the golden trident wheeling chief. Will the various kung fu killers end up making fertilizer of our heroes before they can solve the mystery?

Jump around. Jump around.
Masked Avengers is a shockingly brutal and dark film. Chang Cheh has never been shy of violent material and he certainly has toyed with the darker elements of storytelling, but there are a few moments in the film that borderline on horror genre bending. When the viewer is first introduced to the titular evil clan (more like cult) they are celebrating the death of the trespasser from our heroic group. By celebrating, I mean they ritualistically hang him on a statue, impale him with their unique trident weapons, and then drink wine that is flavored with the blood that is pouring from his wound. Yeah. No shit. This kind of almost torture like killing is a theme throughout (spinning men hung for target practice for example) and the villains with their bright red outfits and demonic masks make for some of the best villains I have seen in a Shaw Brothers flick. Masked Avengers is brutal throughout too – a man is doused with acid, yeah – so keep that in mind going into this film.

A stab for a stab...
From there, the film does play up the usual kung fu tropes. The Venom Mob (including a few newer faces) strut their usual charming stuff in most of the bigger roles. Chiang Sheng does seem a bit miscast as the leader of the good clan and lacks the strong maturity and leadership abilities to pull it off, but the rest of the casting is spot on. Strangely enough with such a talented fight cast, Masked Avengers does pull away from the bigger fight spectacles in the first two-thirds to focus on building the characters and story. There are a few here and there, including a fun failed assassination attempt, but it really does save all of that energy for the finale…

…a finale that is fuckin’ phenomenal. Not only is all of the time spent on developing the characters and plot paid off in full, but the combination of gimmick riddled deaths and choreography is massively entertaining. It’s like watching two well-armed and highly skilled kung fu armies do battle in a trap layered abandoned temple and the results are ridiculously fun and impactful. There must be particular praise set up on the use of the trident weapon of the villains. What seemed like a gimmick for most of the film is utilized to its fullest in the final act including some ridiculously fun (and occasionally physics defying) stunts with them. The way that the various fighters throw them and bounce them off of other people to one another is complex enough that after I finished the film, I had to rewind and check out just how outrageously well timed some of it was. It’s that good.

...and this stab's for you!
Masked Avengers might not be for everyone with a rather violent approach and plot heavy first two acts, but the strength of both of these aspects pays off in the highly top notch final act. The combination of the Venom Mob and Chang Cheh fires on all cylinders here in all of the best ways. It’s not quite as serious in its narrative as one would expect with its dedication to plot and characters and it’s not quite as outrageous as the concept would seem, but Masked Avengers is a very impressive combination of the two. A true kung fu gem if I ever saw one.

Written By Matt Reifschneider

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Pirates, The (2015)

Director: Lee Seok-hoon
Notable Cast: Kim Nam-gil, Son Ye-jin, Yoo Hai-jin, Lee Kyong-young, Kim Tae-woo, Park Chul-min, Sulli Choi

“I told you to find another job. What pirate gets seasick?!”

For a long time, many foreign markets struggled to match the pure spectacle of the ‘Hollywood blockbuster.’ Whether it was a lack of budget, lack of sales, or lack of technology, these markets could never quite match the epic and big scales of these type of films. However, in the last decade or so, the Asian market has exploded as a film force to be respected and in that time they have stepped up their game to reach the ambitions of creating their own ‘blockbuster’ type films. This is where The Pirates falls. On the surface level, this high-spirited adventure comedy looks like South Korea’s answer to the Pirates of the Caribbean films. In a way it is. However, The Pirates works on a lot of levels greater than even their American counterparts could – mostly thanks to a unique and rather specific execution of the idea.

As a new country is being founded in 1388, a poor choice by the officials leaves the royal seal swallowed by a whale. To make matters worse, the panicked government decides the best course of action is to put a bounty on the whale and hires various groups to bring the royal seal back. The various thieves, militants, pirates, and agents are all ready to get their hands on the booty…but at what cost?

Sword fighting on the high seas has never been this awesome.
There is a trick to understanding and appreciating The Pirates. Upon my first viewing of the film, I had no idea how much of a comedy it really was and for the first half of that viewing I was a bit fuzzy in how I enjoyed the film in comparison to my expectations. On second viewing though, the humor is absolutely spot on. The timing is damn near perfect with some of its editing for comedy and there is a lot of – pardon the obvious pun – fish out of water elements that play out efficiently here. The group of bandits who decide to take to the seas in search of a whale leads to some hilarious results, including a sequence where they see their first shark that had me in tears on the ground. Even better is Yoo Hai-jin’s ex-pirate character and his attempts at explaining the sea to his new bandit colleagues. The man simply owns when it comes to intense comedic delivery.

However, The Pirates is not all comedy. Underneath the high energy and well fitting hijinks lies a film that really does work as a big scale adventure tale. There are a slew of different plot lines that exist separately in the first two acts and slowly come together for a massive (and dare I say rather explosive) finale. While the main portion of the film follows a brotherhood of pirates lead by the subtle acting strength of Son Ye-jin as their captain there is another main plotline that follows a group of ill-fitting bandits led by the screen eating charm of Kim Nam-gil. This allows The Pirates to have a multitude of layers. It introduces us to two separate villains, a political subplot, and injects enough action to keep us entertained throughout. And the action is awesome. For a pirate movie, one of the silliest – and perhaps most memorable – set pieces comes during a chase through a village while transporting explosives that includes a sort of giant water wheel of death. Sound ridiculous? It is. In all of the best ways.

At times, there seems to be almost too much plot and too many characters. During the first viewing, many of the secondary characters blended into one another and the film tends to run a bit long. In fact, there is moment just over half way into the film that really feels like it’s building into a finale, only to have it sort of side track itself as our two main protagonists are left for dead and chained together for a period that seems to drag just a bit. The film also suffers from being almost too ambitious. While the action is impressively filmed and the combination of martial arts, spectacle, and gun fighting is charming, it relies quite a bit on CGI that just isn’t quite up to par with Hollywood standards yet. They are minor complaints, but they are something to be aware of nonetheless.

Taking a stroll...
The Pirates, in the end, is a film that certainly strives to be a blockbuster action flick and succeeds on almost all of the levels. The story is epic in nature, the blend of action, comedy, and dramatic undertones works in spades, and the film is simply built to entertain throughout. Sure it has a few issues with its structure and its execution of CGI, but the rest of it is damn near perfect. If there were any film that I would want South Korea to franchise the hell out of, it would be The Pirates.

You heard me, Lee Seok-hoon. Give me more. I want more.

Written By Matt Reifschneider

Saturday, January 17, 2015

Invincible Shaolin (1978)

Director: Chang Cheh
Notable Cast: Philip Kwok, Lo Mang, Lu Feng, Wei Pai, Chiang Sheng, Sun Chen, Wong Lung Wei

“Ask this fruit merchant how much a brave man costs.”

After partaking in the rather disappointing The Trail of the Broken Blade, I felt it was time to go back to ‘classic’ Chang Cheh martial arts and revisit one of his fan favorites Invincible Shaolin. This was one of the first Shaw Brothers movies I watched back when I was first starting into the genre and at the request of some readers – it was high time to head back with the Venom Mob. While this flying feet and fists extravaganza has its flaws in story narrative, the resulting blend of political intrigue, dueling clans, and classic kung fu tropes makes for a massively enjoyable flick.

When a general asks the two Shaolin schools to each send their three best to be kung fu instructors for his army, he knowingly sets up a rivalry that will violently play out. When the three teachers from the North are blamed for killing three fighters from the South, their master vows revenge. He sets it up so that three new fighters will be sent to take vengeance – this time training them all to win.

Talk about hand to hand combat.
At its foundational levels, Invincible Shaolin is a fairly standard kung fu film. Motives of vengeance, extensive training sequences, and gimmick riddled fighting all make up the core of what this film is about. With a strong cast made up of the Venom Mob, who continue to impress with their charm, chemistry, and physical on-screen prowess, and under the direction of Chang Cheh, Invincible Shaolin proves to be a massively entertaining flick in this regard. The fights are delightfully fun throughout and they do take a rather emotional turn in the finale – which includes those patented Chang Cheh bursts of violence and gore, so that this film ranks up there right between the seriousness of The Five Deadly Venoms and the ridiculousness of camp included in Crippled Avengers. If anything, this flick succeeds as an entertaining romp.

Anyone that makes a Karate Kid joke gets beaten.
Outside of the basics though, Invincible Shaolin does have some strange narrative choices. After starting the film's first act with the Northern Shaolin instructors as the protagonists, it takes a turn in the second act to focus on the South Shaolin avengers as the protagonists. This shift also comes with an intriguing slide in plot as the first act establishes a sort of murder mystery for the Northern instructors with the question 'who really killed their rivals,' but the second act focuses on the training. While the training sequences are a staple of the genre and a sort of fan pleasing aspect, it does take away from the bigger plot. There are a few times that it switches back to the Northern instructors and a sort of budding romantic subplot (which is fun, but rarely as emotionally effective as it should have been), but it’s not enough to really push it forward and it seems forced. By the time the two different plots reconnect in the third act, the viewer knows the outcome because the film has lost its depth. If it wasn’t for the shared chemistry of the Venom Mob onscreen and their ridiculously effectual charm and dynamic fight work, Invincible Shaolin would have lost a lot of steam at this point. Luckily for us, they really do pull it off even if the film’s narrative and plot crumble from beneath them. 

As a kung fu fan, Invincible Shaolin certainly caters to the pleasing aspects that I have come to love and expect from the genre with its plentiful and dynamic fighting, strong characters, and gimmick riddled training sequences. It does however stumble when it comes to its plot and narrative, sacrificing what could have been a very emotionally punctuated concept and throwing it on the backburner for those classic kung fu tropes. Kung fu fans will find things to love for sure, but those of a more discerning taste might not be as fulfilled as promised by the stunning cast, director, and pledges of story.

Written By Matt Reifschneider

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Zero Theorem, The (2014)

Director: Terry Gilliam
Notable Cast: Christoph Waltz, Matt Damon, David Thewlis, Melanie Thierry, Tilda Swinton

The continued presence of Terry Gilliam as a director to push truly thoughtful and outrageous concept films into the world is something no one should take lightly. From his early days in Monty Python to his latest film The Zero Theorem, his ability to blend the quirky awkward comedy, thoughtful high level thinking, and emotional punch of the human plight has been impressive. For The Zero Theorem, Gilliam goes back to some of the same thematic and structural elements he used for the iconic Brazil to deliver one of the strongest and – believe it or not – most straight forward films of his career.

Qohen Zeth (Waltz) has a dead end job as a sort of computer ‘cruncher’ for Management. He doesn’t see much use in it and his continued patience for a phone call to give his life meaning is running short. When Management (Damon) gives him a new highly secretive task working on The Zero Theorem from home, Zeth begins to crumble under the weight of his new work.

Web surfing.
On the surface level, Gilliam delivers another film that is both silly and utterly sarcastic in its interpretation about man’s role in the bigger scheme. The outrageousness of the world presented here (where ads follow you on the wall and a party is just a bunch of drunk people dancing with their mobile devices) is in stark contrast to the withdrawn and often skittish Zeth, who is played to awkward brilliance by Christoph Waltz. The Zero Theorem takes this sort of ‘future world’ and layers it with a lot of different themes about control, networking, and one person’s plight to find meaning. It’s Gilliam’s patented overzealous silliness of color and visuals in many ways that spurs much of the comedy and thematic thoughtfulness of the writing. This review won’t necessarily try to analyze the concepts (as it is VERY open to interpretation in many ways), but know that this is not your average science fiction-esque drama comedy. It’s much too deep for that.

Yet the best part of the film might not be the colorful and high concept stage that is set up by the plot or visuals, but by the intense and rather heartbreaking/heartwarming character work that comes about for Zeth and all of those around him. While the social and political commentary is a big foundation of the science fiction and plot, the character arc delivered by Gilliam and Waltz might contain more punch. Partnered with some stellar secondary performances (Melanie Thierry takes a rather one note character with her ‘call girl’ and gives it so much more depth then it had any right to have), the entire film becomes hypnotizing. Watching a man lose control of the life he has built and learning to find control of the life he wants is much more impactful and refreshing.

I love the sex shop next to the church. Classic Gilliam.
The Zero Theorem is certainly not a film for everyone. The slow pacing of the film, particularly in the third act, will try the patience of those who don’t buy into the plot or characters and the rather subtle and open interpretation of what the film is saying will definitely rub a more mainstream audience the wrong way. However, for cinephiles and those looking for film with much more depth and thoughtful character building than 98% of the films released in the last five years will want to go out and immediately purchase The Zero Theorem when it drops.

Written By Matt Reifschneider

Monday, January 12, 2015

Trail of the Broken Blade, The (1967)

Director: Chang Cheh
Notable Cast: Jimmy Wang Yu, Kiu Chong, Chin Ping

As a Shaw Brothers fan and even more particularly a Chang Cheh fan, I was stoked when The Trail of the Broken Blade was finally getting its official US release. One of the first big films for Chang Cheh at the iconic studio, it's a sort of kick start that lead him to his brilliant film The One-Armed Swordsman. Unfortunately, The Trail of the Broken Blade is not quite the epic wuxia film I was expecting. In fact, it’s quite the awkward blend of different influences and genres that ultimately lends to a less than thrilling experience.

For Li Yueh (Jimmy Wang Yu), avenging the death of his father by killing a well respected officer has lead him to a life on the run and keeping him from his childhood love Liu Xian (Chin Ping). Liu Xian refuses to let go and she sends another dashing swordsman Jun-zhao (Kiu Chong) to find him and bring him home. Not knowing, the two become sworn brothers and a group of assassins from Flying Fish Island are out to make their lives hell.

The early years of the Shaw Studio saw them unsure of how to proceed with their brand of martial arts films. So a lot of the issues that arise with The Trail of the Broken Blade are not necessarily from the actors involved or even from Chang Cheh in particular. The third act certainly seems to find its footing and feels like the Chang Cheh film I wanted from the first minute, but the first two-thirds stumble through some…different elements.

The biggest piece that makes The Trail of the Broken Blade a rather awkward film is the strange blend of classic opera style and the low-key sensibilities of the Japanese samurai film. On one end of the spectrum, this film is ridiculously over the top at times. The bright costumes, the super melodramatic music, the make-up. The eye liner on Jimmy Wang Yu rivals that of Egyptian hieroglyphics at times. It also throws in a few songs for shits and giggles, not performed by the cast mind you, but as a sort of narrative for some forced and random montages that pop up here and there. This is, of course, blended with a sort of stolen structure from the popular Japanese samurai films as a man must darkly wallow in hiding and falls prey to a slew of assassins that are hunting him down. The swordplay and action is sparse in the first two acts as it focuses on building a plot that’s far too complex (and dare I say boring) for its own good. It’s not about the complex battles or choreography that kung fu films would be known for, but instead focuses on the intensity of those moments instead. What makes it so awkward is that the combination of big cheese presentation and complex subtle narratives don’t work together.

"Sorry, I didn't recognizer you without your make-up on."
Luckily, if there is a saving grace for this film, the third act finally gathers some steam. Chang Cheh, while still showcasing a bit of amateur issues, seems to find his style and voice here – and one that he would embrace fully just a few films down the road. It’s the third act that feels like a true Shaw Brothers film with its cheesy villains, epic weapon battles, and almost fantasy like elements as our heroes travel to Flying Fish Island to confront the Black Net Devil and his followers. Jimmy Wang Yu does his best to convert to the killer that the first two-thirds desperately wanted him not to be, but it’s the sort of weird twist to tongue-in cheek feelings that works here. Not to mention we finally get to see some of his rather fun violent moments like a man being pierced three ways by metal spikes in a trap or a massive surge of blood that pours from the hair line of a slain man.

"Are you here for the Flying Fish Island henchmen genocide? Let me oblige."
All in all, while The Trail of the Broken Blade is an interesting look into the unsure style and feeling of early Shaw films, the resulting film is more for established fans and not for those just dabbling into the genre/studio. It’s just an awkward film that rarely gets moving due to poor cohesion and genres that don’t fit together.

Written By Matt Reifschneider

Sunday, January 11, 2015

Taken 3 (2015)

Director: Olivier Megaton
Notable Cast: Liam Neeson, Forest Whitaker, Maggie Grace, Famke Janssen, Dougray Scott, Leland Orser

The Taken franchise is the one that I so desperately want to love, but continually find myself angry towards. The first film was a phenomenal mid-budget action thriller, relying on the foreign setting, the badass charm of Liam Neeson, and the tight modern direction of Pierre Morrell to sell your basic concept. The second one was a rehashed C-grade effort castrated by terrible direction from Olivier Megaton. This third entry, with the stylized title Tak3n on the posters, is once again helmed by Megaton. It might have a slightly more original script to build on than the carbon copy of Taken 2, but the resulting film is still an almost unwatchable slab of editing that it takes away any kind of fun the vulgar auteur fan could have with it.

Bryan Mills (Neeson) has really settled into his life in LA being a dad to his now college aged daughter (Grace). Too bad it’s about to end when he comes home one day to find his ex-wife (Janssen) murdered in his apartment with the cops showing up soon after. Now he’s on the run, desperate to find out who framed him and trying to keep his daughter safe at the same time.

Enjoying another paycheck.
Starting with the better points of Taken 3, I will admit that in the end I felt it was a better film than Taken 2. Mostly because instead of being a knock off of its own franchise, it’s a knock off of The Fugitive. It doesn’t quite replicate the kidnapping theme of the first two (at least not as the big problem to be solved), but instead focuses on the consistently charming and intense Neeson having to survive/solve a mystery before something bad happens. It’s not original, but the film does have a decent B-grade concept that allows for plenty of chase sequences and even throws in a sort of siege finale that plays up Neeson as the continued badass that I hope he is in real life.

The problem? Olivier “The Bastard Child of Michael Bay and Paul Greengrass” Megaton. I’m willing to overlook the predictability of the script, the cheesy one liners, the forced character development that plague the film on its foundations. I like B-grade action flicks. Unfortunately, I am less forgiving when it comes to castrating this film to the point where all of the action scenes and chase sequences are blurs of edits, mega zooms, and nauseating shaky cam. Just like he did with Taken 2, he utterly takes any kind of thoughtful framing, tension, or pacing and pisses it out of the action set pieces. Why does it take fourteen angles to show Liam Neeson drive a car backwards down an elevator shaft? It’s to the point that I’m actually quite unsure of any of the action that I witnessed in the film. Not only that, but the lack of violence in the film (her throat was slit? And then it was already healed in the morgue? The gun in the bullet wound? WHAT BULLET WOUND?!) really makes it lose its tension throughout.

Neeson does a great impression of my face during the action sequences here.
Thus far, the theatrical box office says that the general hatred by critics isn’t going to detract people from enjoying this franchise. With a different director, I can’t say that Taken 3 wouldn’t have been a fun and enjoyable experience. As is though, the terrible editing and shooting of the action sequences sucks any life out of the mediocre script. Even the still screen devouring abilities of Liam Neeson couldn’t save this one. 

Written By Matt Reifschneider

Zatoichi's Vengeance (1966)

Director: Tokuzo Tanaka
Notable Cast: Shintaro Katsu, Shigeru Amachi, Jun Hamamura, Gen Kimura, Koichi Mizuhara, Mayumi Ogawa, Kei Sato

“Taichi. When you grow up, don’t make fun of handicapped people. Although these men may look human, they’re less than animals.”

It’s as if this franchise never loses steam at this point. Like the titular blind samurai protagonist, the series continues on its way, occasionally stumbling but always popping up at the right time to strike when needed before heading off into the sunset. For the thirteenth entry, Zatoichi’s Vengeance, we see a continuation of the executed strength from the previous film, Zatoichi and the Chess Expert. While the formula for the franchise still exists in spades (ultimately, this one is decently predictable), director Tokuzo Tanaka breathes fresh life into it once again, leading the viewer on another riveting and thoughtful adventure with the ever charming Zatoichi.

Zatoichi (Shintaro Katsu), like he always does, stumbles into a dispute on the side of the road where a dying man leaves him a bag of money to take to his son in a nearby town. In this town, he finds a group of people being bullied by a new and greedy force and he is once again forced to take up his sword against those who fight for wealth…but will the young boy who has taken him for an idol be able to understand his violent ways?

As deadly as he is relaxing.
There have been a lot of different faces for the character Zatoichi throughout this franchise and while I have spoken to this facet before in previous reviews, Zatoichi’s Vengeance takes on a rather new and intriguing one: Zatoichi the Role Model. With a sort of ‘voice of reason’ provided by a blind monk that Zatoichi meets on the road to the village, his interactions throughout the film are filled with doubt and we see a character who starts to question himself a bit – a move that makes his arc a rather fresh one. It’s a theme fleshed out by a slew of unstable secondary characters – including a very smart subplot featuring a wayward samurai husband and his forlorn wife forced into prostitution – and the continued use of smart thematic writing makes this one of the better entries. Although it probably lacks a bit on the emotional essentials that saw Chess Expert rise to being one of the best, Vengeance is still remarkably effective in its narrative and character beats that really works in a lot of thoughtful pieces that analyze its lead character and his interactions.

Yet, there is one other component that kicks Vengeance to being one of the better entries of this series. It’s the luscious action set pieces. If anything, many of the more powerful entries lacked in this department and Vengeance is one of the best at balancing the two facets of the samurai film. Director Tanaka has a serious knack for great visuals and when it’s paired with stellar cinematography and the impressive choreography, the combination is explosive. An opening fight in tall reeds and the finale, which slowly becomes a silhouetted battle on a bridge, both become some of the best fight pieces of the series. Even the final bout with a sympathetic ronin is one of the best one on one fights the series has seen in many, many entries.

It's damn near iconic.
If the Zatoichi franchise continues to pump out outstanding samurai films in this manner, I would be tempted to say it’s not only one of the best Japanese series, but any series of all time. Zatoichi’s Vengeance is another impressive entry that provides thoughtful writing, humane insight, and entertaining humor and action that delivers a film that rises above its status as the thirteenth entry of a serial film franchise.

Written By Matt Reifschneider

Thursday, January 8, 2015

Once Upon a Time in Shanghai (2015)

Director: Wong Ching Po
Notable Cast: Phillip Ng, Andy On, Sammo Hung, Michelle Hu, Luxia Jiang, Mao Junjie, Chan Koon-Tai, Yuen Cheung-Yan, Fung Hak-On

One of the interesting aspects of receiving film releases long after they are released in theaters and on home video in another country is that you get to see how a film plays out to a slew of different critics and fans. I had been following Once Upon a Time in Shanghai since it was announced mostly due to its massively strong casting and the fact that it had legendary fight choreographer Yuen Woo Ping attached to it. Yet, the reception of the film was rather mundane overall. Enough so that when I finally got my copy, I was utterly shocked at how much fun I had with the film. Once Upon a Time in Shanghai is not a perfect film by any means, but the combination of high energy, charm, and some fun fight sequences makes for a film that hit all of the entertainment buttons on my mental machine.

Ma Yongzhen (Phillip Ng) is new to Shanghai in the 1930s. The city of dreams where any man can find opportunity isn’t quite as glamorous as he had hoped, but a strong community and his immaculate strength have made it bearable. When he learns of a young Shanghai native Long Qi (Andy On) is quickly rising through the ranks in the gangster world through his insatiable appetite and vicious fighting, he finds a way to make his life (and the lives of his friends and adopted family) better.

Once Upon a Time in Shanghai is a modern spin on a lot of old martial arts film tropes thrown in a relatively unique and charming background. At its heart, Once Upon a Time in Shanghai is the 70s Golden Harvest movie that Golden Harvest never made - which is somewhat hilarious as the film is a loose remake of the Shaw Brothers film Boxer from Shantung. This Golden Harvest connection is apparent in a lot of ways. The inclusion of Sammo Hung in a small almost cameo sized secondary role, the streaks of slapstick humor that pop up in the romantic sub plot, and, of course, the general way that the plot progresses towards being a pro-Chinese/anti-Japanese cautionary tale about the historical moments of the time. It also features an utterly charismatic and intense performance from Phillip Ng who, in an astonishing move, channels the very spirit and feel of a young Bruce Lee for the film. This ‘Ng as Lee’ maneuver seems very intentional and for all intensive purposes – works like fuckin’ magic. He utterly owns the screen and devours his ‘good boy in a bad world’ role for all it’s worth. He even upstages the charming Andy On on many occasions (whom also thrives in the role of the ambitious gang leader) and their on screen chemistry – bromance, I suppose – is lightning to watch.

And while the core of Once Upon a Time in Shanghai is most certainly riding on this sort old school feel and the charm it brings with it, director Wong Ching Po does his best to modernize the film at the same time even if its to a hit or miss effect. In another surprising move, Once Upon a Time in Shanghai is damn near shot in black and white. The colors of the film are muted essentially to a point where anything outside of the brightest colors (a jade bracelet, the neon lights of the night club) are leached of any color. It’s a move that works remarkably well and one that comes as a pleasant surprise since many of the stills and promotional material I had seen was in color. The film also has that modern Yuen Woo Ping touch to much of the action. Lots of pacing shifts into slow motion or high speed pop up throughout the fight sequences (of which there are plenty – including a classic kung fu stair step finale of villains) and even though that shoddy CGI makes its appearance too much for my tastes, the actual choreography and impact of the action set pieces are more than enough fun to hit home.

Once Upon a Time in Shanghai is a modern kung fu tale for old school kung fu fans. In a way, it’s this concept that has lead to some of the mediocre reviews and opinions about the film. Old school kung fu fans tend to despite CGI and the modern camera work of newer films. However, if you are one that can set aside those initial sour tastes (like I had to do) you will find that Once Upon a Time in Shanghai is an utterly charming and massively entertaining film built on classic foundations with a modern spin. The characters are engaging, the action is ‘big punch’ entertainment, and the fun that can be had with the film makes for a film that gets a huge recommendation from me – warts and all.

Written By Matt Reifschneider

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

[Rec]4: Apocalypse (2015)

Director: Jaume Balaguero
Notable Cast: Manuela Velasco, Paco Manzanedo, Hector Colome, Ismael Fritschi, Crispulo Cabezas, Paco Obregon

It might be true that the [Rec] franchise has increasingly lost steam with each entry, but it’s hard not to love the first two films and appreciate what the third one was attempting to do to change up the dynamics of the series. My lukewarm take on the third film didn’t stop me from being stoked for the fourth entry Apocalypse and the return of director Jaume Balaguero had me intrigued for what he had in store for the epic finale. As it turns out, [Rec]4 mostly had disappointment in store for me with its back to basics approach and relatively safe turn for its story. It’s still a decent zombie flick for those looking for it and it comes off as exciting overall – but for this franchise I still expect a bit more than that.

The two lone survivors (Paco Manzanedo, Crispulo Cabezas) of a military team that went in to rescue TV reporter Angela (Manuela Velasco) at the ill fated apartment complex in Barcelona are stuck on a massive ship out at sea. A group of scientists and their armed guards need total isolation to concoct a cure for the monstrous virus. Angela is there as is one of the few survivors of the wedding outbreak earlier and together they will have to team up to survive one final outbreak and find a way off of the ship when shit hits the fan.

Being sick bites...
[Rec]4: Apocalypse is the kind of film that is going to tear fans in two directions. On one hand it adds a few elements that the series was known for as a continuation of the franchise and it moves at a lightning pace, but on the other hand it deviates even further from what made the first two films worth it. As a long time fan, I enjoyed seeing the return of Angela to the fold, particularly after her unknown fate we were witness to in [Rec]2. The appearance of a character from [Rec]3 is a bit shocking and useless though. It’s almost as if she was shoehorned in to just make sure we all didn’t forget that the third entry existed as it comes off as irrelevant for the rest of the film. Apocalypse also has the pacing going for it as it moves at a ridiculously fast pace. Partnered with the claustrophobic and unique setting of a ship at sea, [Rec]4 does succeed as being a rather energetic and fast paced zombie flick complete with plenty of monstrous attacks and a rainy chaotic finale.

Unfortunately, just being a fun and energetic zombie film doesn’t quite cut it for a series known for innovation in the genre. This latest entry (which at this point I sincerely doubt will be the last) does move in full to being a traditionally filmed picture. This, like the last half of the last entry, does seem like a huge cop out of the stylistic choice that this franchise made a legit form of horror entertainment. Director Jaume Balaguero tries to recapture some of the in-the-moment terror by keeping the film frantic with tons of shaky cam, but the magic is sort of lost in this move…not to mention irritating as far as getting an audience sea sick sitting on their own couch. [Rec]4 actually makes its biggest mistake though in pulling away from the quirky religious elements of the last two entries and biting down on being a straight up zombie picture. Blah blah blah doctors, virus, anti-virus, and the origin of the virus all make their appearances and yet not a single piece of the cool religious twists are to be found. It’s a strange shift away from originality that ends up biting the film in the ass.

The storm hits.
As a zombie flick, [Rec]4 earns its thrills and kills with its high energy pacing and plenty of fun violence to be had (including the use of a outboard motor as a weapon) and it works in regards to being a decent action oriented horror flick. However, its movement away from originality, style, and the religious elements makes it a pretty disappointing sequel. Some fans will love it. Others will probably hate it.

Written By Matt Reifschneider