Thursday, August 14, 2014

All Cheerleaders Die (2014)

Directors: Lucky McKee, Chris Siverston
Notable Cast: Caitlin Stasey, Sianoa Smit-McPhee, Brooke Butler, Amanda Grace Cooper, Reanin Johannink, Tom Williamson

As a big fan of Lucky McKee’s films, I was eager to see what he would have his sleeve after the controversial (and astoundingly effective) The Woman. When I found it he would be co-directing a film called All Cheerleaders Die, I felt a little unsure. As a director he has always throw in subtext about feminism and the strength of women in his films, but this seemed like this might be the one time he sold out to the mainstream media. Shockingly though, for a movie about killer undead cheerleaders, All Cheerleaders Die contains all the elements that have come to make his films great – all the while paying homage to the unlikeliest of horror film eras…the 90s and early 00s.

Maddy (Stasey) is looking to make senior year her year. After the unlikely death of her friend Alexis (Cooper) the year prior, she is looking to right the wrongs that had happened and ends up joining the cheerleading squad. She has an underhanded plan though to make the guilty pay and nothing…not even death…is going to stop her from her goal.

Team is spelled with 'I' in this case.
As it would turn out, All Cheerleaders Die is technically a remake. It’s a remake of a 2001 film of the same name made by the same two guys, McKee and Sivertson. I have not seen the original film so comparisons will probably not happen in this review unless its an accident. It does, however, explain some of the stylistic choices of this film to homage the dark ages of horror in the late 90s and the 00s. The entire teens in high school plot focusing on cheerleaders and football players seems something that would have come right out of the flood of Scream knock offs that happened in this era, just ten years later. Luckily, the combination of McKee and Sivertson seem to understand a lot of how these tropes work and they throw in just enough dark humor and modern techniques that the film almost comes out as a parody of that time period. The opening sequence is done ‘found footage style’ but it builds a nice intro that quickly ends on one of the greatest deaths for horror in 2014 (and being quite hilarious at that.) While some of the pitfalls of that era plague this film (shallow secondary characters and a reliance on high school issues like how important image is and bullshit like that), the general strength of the execution helps out the film immensely and All Cheeleaders Die comes off as a charming film with much more subtext then expected.

It’s this subtext that really allows All Cheerleaders Die to be much more than just ‘another teen horror movie.’ Like most of McKee’s other flicks, it contains a substantial amount of exploration into issue that affect young women in today’s society. Everything from the use physical appearance as an expectation of quality of person to rape. In fact, the film spends a majority of its time exploring these young cheerleaders and jocks in an effort to really build this thoughtful relationship with the audience. The cheerleaders don’t even die until halfway into the film and the real horror doesn’t really start until that point either. From there though, it gets a strong dose of great campy horror elements that add a lot of fun to the proceedings including a fantastic third act that makes all of the character building worth it.

It's like "Charmed" but, you know, good.
All Cheerleaders Die is the kind of film that really grew on me. When I first watched it, I enjoyed it for its strong throwback elements and impressive execution by the directing team. The more it sat with me after the fact, the more I liked it though. Now that I have spun my copy twice I have to say it’s one of my favorite horror films of the year. It’s not a film for everyone with its dry, dark humor and weird cliché twists, but for those willing to go into it with an open mind I highly recommend it.

Written By Matt Reifschneider

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Den, The (2014)

Director: Zachary Donohue
Notable Cast: Melanie Papalia, David Schlachtenhaufen, David Shapiro, Anna Margaret Hollyman

Just when you thought that found footage horror had lost all the charm of its gimmick in limiting the visuals of film, The Den pops up to take it one step further. This little slasher horror flick tells its story completely through video screen captures on various mobile devices. While I wasn’t necessarily sold on the film by the end, the concept remains fairly unique and my respect goes to director Zachary Donohue and the other writers for even attempting such a ridiculously limiting gimmick. The results might be a rather mixed bag, but considering how found footage horror has already cannibalized itself into a corner then I will take a fresh spin.

Elizabeth (Papalia) just got a grant to do a social study about a interactions on a rotating random social media site called The Den. When she sees someone murdered in front of her eyes on the site though, she begins to spiral into a world where a killer has the ability to use your computer against you…

"Gotta keep the camera recording...even if it means death!"
I’m sure you’re probably wondering just how the hell you present an entire movie via webcam like The Den accomplishes. Well you take a little bit of Cry_Wolf and mix it with a smidge plot convenience then voila: instant horror film. While the plot does take a bit of a suspended sense of logic to swallow (at least in the sense that everyone seemingly leaves their laptops and phones on when they do things and that hackers are able to remotely control everything,) the film itself plays out the first two-thirds as a nice little horror mystery. It makes the audience think about who might be terrorizing this poor girl and it adds some fun moments to build the mystery using. Entire apartments are cleaned out, police cyber crimes seem to have a thumb up their ass on how to trace anything, and our evil burlap masked killer has very skillful ninja moves to make sure he is neither seen nor heard unless its timed for a jump scare. In a way, the film is silly fun that kept my interest even if the mass amount of clichés can be a bit overwhelming (a leaked sex tape to ruin her life? Oh noes!)

The inherent problem with The Den, outside of being relatively cliché and plot hole riddled, is that it lacks a lot of stakes for our heroine and her buddies. By half way through the film it was pretty apparent what the end was going to be even with the complications that the writing threw at the viewer. It was obvious enough that the one thing that makes horror so horrifying, seeing hope dwindle away for those we have a connection with, never really came to fruition. That way when the finale comes around it rolls out flat.

Worst Halloween costume ever.
In the end, The Den is your pretty basic slasher that just happens to be done with the gimmick of ‘screen captures found footage.’ It was surprisingly fun to watch, considering how cliché it is overall and the lacking punch for its third act, but don’t go into it with too many expectations or it might leave you looking for something else.

Written By Matt Reifschneider

Zatoichi on the Road (1963)

Director: Kimiyoshi Yasuda
Notable Cast: Shintaro Katsu, Shiho Fujimura, Ryuzo Shimada, Reiko Fujiwara, Matasaburo Niwa

“He has something to show this blind man, he said. I’d like to see that.” –Zatoichi

After the phenomenal fourth entry into the series, it could only be assumed that the series would have to head down even if it’s just a fraction of quality. For the fifth entry of the series, Zatoichi on the Road, the series heads further towards being serialized and moving away from the series of events and characters that linked the first four films.  It’s not a horrible thing as this entry is still highly entertaining through and through, but this film certainly doesn’t carry the emotional impact that some of the previous entries did…despite some valiant efforts to do so.

Like always, Zatoichi (Shintaro Katsu) is on the road being escorted to Doyoma as a guest of the yakuza boss there when he stumbles upon a dying old man. He promises to the old man to take a young woman Mitsu (Shiho Fujimura)  home to Edo who is on the run from some samurai. To make matters worse, he is being chased himself by some assassins trying to prevent him from reaching Doyoma. It’s going to be one of those weeks.

Snack attack!
While being the weakest of the entries into the franchise thus far, Zatoichi on the Road is still a pretty fun flick. It lends itself to some comparisons to the first film, particularly in the plot line where Zatoichi is being drafted into a gang war between two rival clans, but the execution is drastically different. Zatoichi on the Road pulls away from the stronger emotional punches and focuses more on a pulpy approach. Instead of being a film about Zatoichi the Tragic, it’s a film about Zatoichi the Badass. There is more action and Zatoichi spends a good portion of his time acting more like a hero than an anti-hero. Don’t get me wrong, his character is most certainly a sword slashing badass that’s punctuated by scenes where he kills three men while sitting or getting a drink of water in the middle of the big finale sword battle. Luckily the script is twisty-turny enough to earn some of its own dramatic beats (Zatoichi’s almost fatherly interactions with the young woman and the young yakuza at the end for example), but this one feels more like entertainment than the previous entries.

Perhaps the biggest change though comes in the director’s chair of the film. Yasuda gears the film towards that more entertaining path, but he certainly lacks the visual flair of some of the previous directors. He is helped by a great cast to add some charm to the proceedings, Shintaro is brilliant as always and Fujimura adds a lot of great balance to his role. While the villains here are not quite as good as the last couple we’ve seen in the franchise, it’s hard to say that they don’t aptly do their job though.

Odds on Zatoichi the Badass.
Zatoichi on the Road is my least favorite of the franchise thus far, but it’s still a decently entertaining ride. It still contains some really strong character moments and the action is fantastically done, but it misses the emotional and tragic themes that pushed the other films into being instant classics.

Written By Matt Reifschneider

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Robocop (2014)

Director: Jose Padilha
Notable Cast: Joel Kinnaman, Michael Keaton, Gary Oldman, Samuel L Jackson, Abbie Cornish, Jackie Earle Haley

Hollywood continually makes one mistake with a lot of their remakes. Just because a film has a die hard cult following, doesn’t mean that it’s going to translate well for a modern audience and that the cult audience may not take kindly to a new ‘vision’ of the art they so appreciate. Take this Robocop remake as a prime example. No matter how much you try to give it a modern spin with talk about drones and man vs technology, the core concept and execution of the original film just couldn’t be done a second time. Call it ‘right time, right place’ or whatever, but this reincarnation of the Robocop legacy seemingly falters in almost every category to the original. It has its own strengths, sort of, but even then it’s hard to justify this film overall.

Murphy (Kinnaman) is a good hard working cop with a wonderful family, but when he uncovers a larger crime syndicate operating in his city he is martyred for his cause. That’s not the end of his story though as a military conglomerate OmniCorp and a scientist (Oldman) on the brink of new research take Murphy and give him the latest in cybernetic bodily advancements to keep him on the streets fighting crime.

Should have kept him silver.
Director Jose Padilha stunned with his awesome Elite Squad police drama flicks, but outside of a few moments a lot of his vision and style seems lost in Robocop. Most of this has to do with the story, which tends to try and focus on too many elements. There are three major plot lines that exist in the film that Robocop attempts at intertwining and has a lot of trouble doing so. Firstly there is the Murphy and family plot. This version of Robocop spends a lot more time establishing Murphy as a father and husband to increase the presence of his struggle at being human and against his robotic protocol in the latter half of the film. While this portion does tend to be the strongest of the three plot progressions, it still struggles to find a balance against the other two. Secondly, Robocop attempts to pull on the political and social questions about the use of technology and drones in modern warfare. While I appreciate the concepts being brought into a mainstream film, it’s pretty surface level stuff here and never really digs into the matter like it might have. As is, the ‘robophobia’ spin feels more like a last minute addition than a true driving ideological force to the film. Finally, the last plot line is the actual plot that concerns Murphy’s discovery of a crime conspiracy. As the film desperately tries to balance all of these psychological and social themes, it sort of forgets that there needs to be a damn villain in the film. So it stumbles around with police corruption, corporate puppeteering and espionage, and gun smuggling. It feels like the film is never sure which direction it wants to actually go with the plot and so it sort of just meanders about between a slew of different paths…which is ultimately a frustrating endeavor for the audience.

Take what you will from the massively hit or miss script, but this is a fucking Robocop film. Even Robocop 2 had a mediocre script that was made wholly enjoyable by its comic book execution and awesome action. Not so much here, folks. Even though I loved the realistic tone that Padilha used in his Elite Squad movies, it doesn’t quite work as well here particularly with the massive amounts of cheesy CGI thrown in. The ED-209 battles are modern day spectacle that lack tension and the faster pace of the action lends itself to feeling too much like a superhero film rather than a science fiction action flick. There is one piece that I felt was pretty unique and that’s the siege on the gun runners that’s done in the dark and punctuated by muzzle flashes and the red lights on Robocop’s suit. Outside of that though, I wasn’t wholly impressed here either.

"What did you do to my franchise?!"
By all means, Robocop is not a terrible film. It’s a serviceable action thriller with some science fiction twists, but it just has the terrible fortune of being compared to one of the greatest cult films ever. It tries to do too much, it loses much of the satirical nature of the franchise previously (particularly in its neutered PG-13 format), and the modern spin on the direction makes it feel more like a video game than a representation of reality that it should be a parallel towards. Quite simply, it misses all the opportunities that it could have improved upon.  

Written By Matt Reifschneider 

Project A (1983)

Director: Jackie Chan
Notable Cast: Jackie Chan, Yuen Biao, Sammo Hung, Dick Wei

The combination of early Jackie Chan stunt extravaganza, a cast featuring Yuen Biao and Sammo Hung, and a plot about a Navy plan to take down some vicious pirates sounds pretty awesome. So don’t question the script issues and the million-miles-per-hour pacing and do what I did with Project A and just run with it. If you do, you will find Project A to be a spectacular action flick filled with colorful characters and fun fight sequences. It’s the way that a film like this should be enjoyed whether or not it’s perfect.

Dragon Ma (Jackie Chan) is quickly rising through the ranks as a Navel officer, but their lack of success as a group in catching some dastardly pirates has left them in some hot water with the budgeting folks. When many of the officers in the Navy are forced to retrain in the police force under Inspector Hong Tin-Tsu (Yuen Biao), Dragon Ma butts heads with the idea. When a chance encounter with an old friend Fats (Sammo Hung) has Dragon Ma in a place to uncover the pirate layer, can he put aside his own ego to get the job done?

Heroes three.
When one becomes a film critic (whether it be professionally or not), you will always have battles with yourself over specific kinds of film. Project A is the kind of film that almost gave me schizophrenia while watching it. One part of me, the critic, heavily questioned the random flow of the film, the obvious set ups for gimmick riddled action/stunt set pieces, and for the rather flat character arcs of our main hero and his two ‘sidekicks.’ Project A is not a perfect film. It’s like the flick is two films mashed together – the first half being a Naval/Police rivalry with comedic beats and the second half being a much more serious action flick about cops and pirates. It starts a lot of plot elements and quickly shifts them in different directions. The entire Naval/Police rivalry seems dropped too quickly in the script despite the great set up. The inclusion of Fats (played with delightful cheese by Sammo Hung) shows up much too late and adds little in the way of strong character growth for our hero. Even the main pirate spin on the film almost seems like an afterthought until the last third of the flick where they finally introduce us to the charismatic pirate king and his island. As a critic, Project A was almost frustrating at times.

This, of course, is the critic in me speaking and too often over analyzing films. The other part of me consumed this movie vigorously and haphazardly. This is the 15 year old that fell in love with martial arts film and Jackie Chan in particular. For this part of my psyche, Project A is the perfect film. The slapstick humor is handled to perfection by Jackie Chan and his phenomenal stunt team, the charismatic combination of Jackie Chan, Yuen Biao, and Sammo Hung is like watching magic happen in front of you (particularly when they have to team up at the end to fight the beastly pirate king,) and to top it off – the gimmick riddled stunt work is top of the line stuff showcasing Jackie Chan at the height of his career in the 80s doing some of the most jaw dropping bits you have ever seen. Whether it’s the police bust where Chan and Biao have to fight their way through a high end gambling hall or the before mentioned 3 on 1 throwdown with the pirate king, the action in Project A is beyond impressively choreographed and spectacular in execution. I was ecstatic just watching it all.

Sometimes time just slips through your hands.
Going into Project A, you have to make a decision. Am I going to watch this critically or am I going to run with it at full speed and see where it takes me? One will leave you a bit disappointed overall, but the other will leave you trying to see if you can leap from a chandelier onto a staircase, doctor bills be damned.  I highly suggest watching it in the latter mindset. Sure some of the writing and characters might not sit well with you, but it’s part of the outrageous fun of this film. Set sail and let the wind carry you on a pirate adventure.

Written By Matt Reifschneider

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Zatoichi the Fugitive (1963)

Director: Tokuzo Tanaka
Notable Cast: Shintaro Katsu, Yutaro Hojo, Masayo Banri, Miwa Takada, Toru Abe, Koichi Mizuhara, Sachiko Murase

When going into a franchise, usually by three or four films in, there will be a dip in quality or at least a pretty significant shift away from what the style of earlier entries. For the Zatoichi franchise, the fourth film might actually be my favorite and it’s just as striking as the debut. There is definitely a few shifts in style from the last few, but it actually works in the films benefit instead of detracting away from the core elements that make the series great. It’s not a film that all fans of the first three will agree with me on, but dammit, Zatoichi the Fugitive is both highly entertaining and emotionally impactful.

Zatoichi (Shintaro Katsu), while continuing to journey on his way through the Japanese summer heat, finds himself being hunted for a price on his head. To discover just why he has now been labeled a fugitive, he travels to a village where warring yakuza bosses are intent on overthrowing one another by scheming with a vicious ronin who just so happens to be married to a woman from Zatoichi’s past…

This fourth entry starts off like a serialized entry of the series by having Zatoichi kill a would be assassin who wants to claim the price on his head for his mother. This leads Zatoichi to the village of our villainous mob of yakuza where he begins to unravel a tense situation that directs him towards a trap as he tries to help those of righteous cause. Shintaro Katsu once again pushes the character of Zatoichi into some new territories where he tries to right the wrongs of this small village, bringing his dark and tragic past with him. The film is actually carried by some strong secondary characters, including a boiling performance from Yutaro Hojo as the arrogant ronin, and a few very intriguing pieces including his attempts to straighten out the path of two star crossed lovers.

Like the previous films before it, Zatoichi the Fugitive relies on a thread from one of the previous films to give it some emotional weight. This time around it’s the return of Zatoichi’s love from the first film Otane, played with a tragic soul by Masayo Banri. This twist appears well into the film and really adds a nice emotional streak to the already strong script and connects the films so that Zatoichi’s arc becomes something of an extension. By the end of the film, she becomes a catalyst that really deepens the epic story of Zatoichi in a new way that pays off in dividends.

It's a blood "bath." Get it? See what I did there?
I did speak of a few shifts in style for Zatoichi the Fugitive earlier and they add a new layer that audiences haven’t seen before in the series. Firstly, this is the first film to pull away from the dense atmosphere of all of the previous entries. Even though it comes from the same director has New Tale, he moves the film towards a higher energy and speed that really makes the film feel more electric. He still throws in plenty of great visuals and slick camera work to sell it, but it’s a new style that works nonetheless. Secondly, the film significantly jacks up the action. Not only is their more action throughout the film, including a fun little sumo romp, but the finale is perhaps the series’ biggest action set piece yet where our anti-hero must slice n’ dice his way through a small army to seek his prey. The finale is simply phenomenal.

While it might be easy to see why some folks wouldn’t enjoy this entry as much (the move away from atmosphere and a slightly more consumable approach to the writing), the changes were brilliantly played out by director Tanaka. This film may not be quite as tragic nor deep, but the blend of action and emotional depth to a rather basic premise is executed at the top of the line. I would even go as far as to say that it’s my favorite of the franchise thus far because of this ability. Here’s to hoping that Zatoichi on the Road is able to match this fine entry. 

Written By Matt Reifschneider

Swelter (2014)

Director: Keith Parmer
Notable Cast: Lennie James, Grant Bowler, Catalina Sandino Mereno, Freya Tingley, Alfred Molina, Jean-Claude Van Damme, Josh Henderson, Daniele Favilli

While the golden age of the western has long since passed, by decades even, the genre occasionally arrives in bursts. As of lately, there seems to be a rather steady stream of direct to video westerns that have hit the shelves and found their way into Redboxes across the US. For the most part, I skip out on these films. The genre doesn’t offer enough for me to truly go out of my way to partake in most of these trashy flicks. So when I stuck in the new thriller Swelter that arrived on my doorstep, I was a bit shocked to see it was a modern western. While it’s not quite as awesome as The Proposition or Red Hill in terms of awesome modern westerns, I was pleasantly surprised with the film that greeted me. It’s flawed in some of its writing, but dammit I have to give it a big ‘A’ for effort.

When four criminals arrive in the small town of Baker just outside of Las Vegas, they start a ruckus for the simple folk. A local sheriff (James), a man with a bullet in his head and no memory of his past, will have to figure out just what these semi-homicidal men want from the small town before they burn it to the ground…and discover a past he has been running from for far too long.

Building on the tropes of the western genre, Swelter takes the modern thriller and mixes it with an old school sensibility that works. Director/writer Keith Parmer seemingly knows the western genre in and out as he piles on homages throughout the film. The thriller aspects of the film, think of a slightly B-grade A History of Violence for starters, works to keep the western elements modern. Most of the heist elements are done in flashback form, outside of the films introduction, but it adds some nice depth with strong character interactions.

"What do you mean no one really knows me? I've been in a ton of films!"
Our hero is a torn soul, played by the versatile cult actor Lennie James (you might know him from Blood Brothers favorites like Snatch or Lockout) looking to escape his heist heavy past. His strong lead work is counterbalanced by some broad stroke secondary characters that help to build an old school spaghetti western feel. The four villains of the film steal most of the scenes though with their quirks, the insane young one has a nice rattlesnake tail that he occasionally rattles and Jean-Claude Van Damme puts in a nice memorable performance here as the one desperately looking for redemption out of the pack. If anything, Keith Parmer populates the film with a ton of fun characters that make the film fly by.

Yet at the core, Swelter is still only an 8 million dollar film so it succumbs to a few B-grade elements. The last act tends to be a bit of a jumble as Parmer tries to throw in some more artful moments. Some don’t work, a church burning is great symbolism for the cannibalism of the town but really doesn’t flow or make sense in the narrative, and some do like the strong use of a symbolic heat wave in the story that builds some nice tension. Had the film had double it’s budget, Parmer might have been able to really build this film up even stronger – particularly with visuals since he obviously has an eye for visual storytelling that’s hindered by its funds. The action is solid for a low cost western though and it works much better than expected, but overall the film does waver under the weight of its own ambitions.

Enjoying life as a supporting character.
As is, Swelter is a pretty strong A-grade B-movie modern western. It’s far from perfect, many of the secondary actors struggle compared to the slew of cult favorites here (Molina does his best with a one note character) and the story tends to want to go further in many places that it simply doesn’t have time or money for, but compared to most of the western direct to home video trash that is being released this is some great entertainment. Keith Parmer has a strong future ahead of him in genre filmmaking and he will be one that the Blood Brothers keep an eye on.

Written By Matt Reifschneider

Friday, August 8, 2014

Guardians of the Galaxy (2014)

Director: James Gunn
Notable Cast: Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana, Dave Bautista, Vin Diesel, Bradley Cooper, Lee Pace, Michael Rooker, Karen Gillan, Dijmon Hounsou, John C. Reilly, Glenn Close, Benicio del Toro

While the Marvel Cinematic Universe has essentially changed the battlefield on how to build a franchise by creating smaller interconnected franchises with The Avengers heroes, their first big deviation from the structure comes in the form of Guardians of the Galaxy. Even as a somewhat knowledgeable comic book fan, I wasn’t sure who these intergalactic outcasts were when the film was announced - only knowing the name as a sort of footnote in the Marvel catalog. With this latest film though, Marvel certainly flexes their movie muscles in ways we haven’t quite seen before and the result is a pretty stunning feature full of quirkiness, heart, and some seriously hilarious moments.

The galaxy is a massive place and for a renegade scrapper like Peter Quill (Pratt) it’s a trove of wonders to sell for big bucks. A recently acquired orb though has brought quite a bit of trouble with it, including a massive bounty on his head. The only way to find out what’s in the orb and get away clean will be with the help of a rag tag team of villains…who just might find out they are more than criminals when a vicious warlord threatens to destroy an entire planet with the orb.

Guardians of the Galaxy is not quite like anything else Marvel has touched. It’s one part Buckaroo Banzai, one part The Ice Pirates, and one part The Avengers. The basic plot is pretty simple and one that you’ve seen before – a relic is wanted by the bad guys and the lesser bad guys (good guys) have to stop them. In fact, our main protagonist Peter Quill even makes a reference that it’s something like the Ark of the Covenant from Raiders of the Lost Ark in the film. He’s right. We’ve seen it before and it’s a comfortable story that works in the blend of action, humor, and heart that we’ve come to expect from Marvel at this time period. It just so happens to be damn near perfect in execution of said basic plot progressions. Even though we can basically set our watches to when our anti-heroes will save the day, it’s a blast getting there.

Slow walk. Go team.

Inside of said plot though James Gunn has populated Guardians with a massively charming group of characters. Whether it’s the dumbass charm of Quill, the asshole nature of Rocket Raccoon (voiced to perfection by Bradly Cooper), or the simplicity and humorous moments of Groot, Guardians is a ball to watch. Playing to his strong sense of timing and comedy, Gunn slathers the film quirky banter. Don’t get me wrong, he also shows a strong ability to craft some fun and outrageous action sequences, but it’s almost more fun to see Quill and Rocket argue about a bomb or that wonderful moment when they decide to work together by hashing out an attack strategy. Even the secondary characters like The Collector get to have their fun moments on screen. It’s dedication to this element that really makes the audience ease into this large new universe with ease. Truthfully, the one issue that this film has is the villains. Ronan the Accuser lacks any kind of charm or screen presence outside of his looks (I’m sure it was intentional to have him be the opposite of our heroes, but he’s kind of a snooze) and even his hench girl seems to lack a lot of personality.

The revolutionary element of Guardians is not the plot or even the characters. It’s that weird pop referential treatment of all of the above. In a weird way, James Gunn has crafted a film that’s completely self aware of just how bat shit crazy it is with its silly alien designs and ‘end of the world’ plot. Guardians plugs in jokes about Ninja Turtles and Trolls, the offbeat design of many of the characters, and plays it all to a super soundtrack straight out of the 70s. It’s irresistibly charming in this sense. It knows it’s a ridiculous space opera and it plays it up to its full potential. 

Fire on the woods!

While I wouldn’t say that Guardians is the best Marvel film to date (the lack of a great villain hurts), I will go as far as to say it’s my favorite. It’s a fun romp of ridiculous asshole anti-heroes who have to overcome their differences to save the day. Not wholly original, but wholly enjoyable. 

Written By Matt Reifschneider

Beneath the Planet of the Apes (1970)

Director: Ted Post
Notable Cast: James Franciscus, Kim Hunter, Maurice Evans, Linda Harrison, James Gregory, Charlton Heston

With the success of Planet of the Apes for 20th Century Fox it was inevitable that they would try to push the franchise forward. Unfortunately, there were a ton of massive debacles in trying to get this film made. Seriously, if you are interested in this franchise you should look up the behind the scenes drama that unfolded will trying to get Beneath the Planet of the Apes on the screen. These issues (everything from casting, to scripting, to drastically cut budgets) certainly take their toll on the final product of the film. Beneath is still a fun science fiction flick, but it doesn’t even come close to touching the heights of the first film.

After Taylor (Heston) and his crew disappeared with their ship, a rescue team was sent to find out their fate. A young astronaut Brent (Franciscus) finds himself stranded on the same planet as the team previous. With the help of Taylor’s mate Nova (Harrison), Cornelius (Watson), and Zira (Hunter), he will have to navigate a disruptive gorilla uprising in the ape city and investigate where Taylor ended up when he went beneath the planet of the apes.

Peek a boo!
While the first Planet of the Apes was a science fiction film with some solid thrills to be had, Beneath aims for something even more epic with bigger threats and more action. Too bad the budget constraints and cheesy script don’t necessarily allow it to reach its full potential. Truthfully, there is a great little science fiction film in Beneath – more like two great films in there. The script is just so scattered between the two halves of the film though that one really has to suspend any sort of basic belief system to even start to try and digest the film. The first half, dedicated to following a similar plot line as the first film, does add in some intriguing political commentary about militant leadership and ant-war stances. Then it sort of careens towards a crazier path (as if a planet full of militant apes wasn’t crazy enough) by actually taking our heroes – minus Cornelius and Zira who sort of serve as glorified cameos – beneath the surface to uncover bomb worshipping mutant humans with telepathic powers of illusion. If the flow between these two halves was a bit better and didn’t degrade itself into a sort of comic bookish finale then perhaps it would have worked better. It just doesn’t though.

On top of that, Beneath pushes itself more towards being an action film in many sequences to match the thrills of the previous film, but often enough it comes off as a bit desperate to entertain more than fitting for the film. A fight on a wagon is pretty impressive, but feels tacked on for example. Fransiscus, who seems to be hammered into a Heston clone here, seems to be phoning in his performance in between those action set pieces too leaving a film that just meanders through the motions. Generally speaking, most of the actors seem to be a bit limp in their respective roles outside of Gregory who delivers some memorable moments as General Ursus with his classic ‘the only good human is a dead human’ monologue. The roles of Zira and Cornelius are butchered to cameos and the mutants at the end are played with such serious cheese it’s hard not to laugh towards the end.

"We're not monkeying around now."
While Beneath is somewhat of a fun film in the campy factor, it’s such a massive step down in every category from the original that it can never shake that aura of disappointment it carries with it. Fransiscus is misused, the plot scattered and often forced, and the increased focus on action doesn’t quite pay off like they intended. While the film has some merits in the franchise as a whole (particularly the awkward and somewhat sudden ending), as a film its massively disappointing.

Written By Matt Reifschneider

Monday, August 4, 2014

Scanners (1981)


As a child a horror clip-show documentary entitled “Terror in the Aisles”, which was marvelously hosted by Donald Pleasance and Nancy Allen, got me hooked on horror films forever. Within that documentary an image of a man’s head exploding burned its way into my retinas and I knew I had to view whatever film it came from. Thankfully my mother knew exactly what film it was as she saw it in the drive-in as a high schooler. The film was called “Scanners” and soon I found myself scouring the local video stores like a ravenous wolf to rent a copy. After a couple of stops I found it and not only was I graced with an intriguing film enunciated by the famous exploding head sequence, but it was also my first David Cronenberg experience, a director I would come to have a small obsession with.
“Scanners” tells the story of a vagrant named Cameron Vale (Stephen Lack), a man that has spent most of his life roaming the streets in a perpetual fog suffering a from a constant yammering of voices talking in his head and some form of telekinesis. After being caught, a doctor informs him that he is a scanner. It’s a mutation of sorts caused by a birth drug that when harnessed can control the thoughts and manipulate other human beings. The voices in his head can only be quelled with the congenital drug known as ephemerol. Of course behind this drug is the evil corporation staple that wants to use scanners as a governmental weapon and to top it off an evil scanner named Revok (iconically played by Michael Ironside) is recruiting his own Scanner army in order to.. du du du… take over the world!
“Scanners”, compared to the director’s previous works like “Shivers”, “Rabid” and “The Brood”, is a bit more mainstream however it is still dripping with the Cronenberisms we all love and come to know. His films usually look at the interactions between technology and humans and how one of humanities biggest fears is their body turning against them. That is all present including Cronebergs grim outlook on the synthesis of man and machine, that the humans simply do not know enough or if they do, their arrogance has them charging headfirst into detrimental experiments. Basically "Scanners" is “Cronenberg 101” and is good starting point for anyone wanting to get into what Cronenberg films have to offer as it is a little more accessible than his films prior and some to come without overwhelming the viewer.
The cast, for the most part, is great. Including the lovely and elegant Jennifer O’Niell as the scanner love interest, Patrick McGoohan as the strangely aloof Dr. Ruth and Michael Ironside in his career defining role as the off-balance villain. Stephen Lack as our lead however lives up to his name as he lacks in every department for giving an unremarkable and un-charming performance. Seriously this guy has as much charisma as a bed frame and gives a new meaning to the term “wooden”. Some people stick up for his performance as this is exactly what a confused homeless person would act. I don’t buy it and the film suffers tremendously from it. Thankfully there is Michael Ironside to make up for this miscasting for the lead as the film wouldn’t be half as good without him.
Overall “Scanners” is a solid independent film and I’m glad it was my first foray into the wacky mind of David Croenberg. The slightly tamed “off-the-wall” ideas and lack of depraved sexuality made it far more accessible than his other works around the same era, but at the same time includes all the main staples that we have all come to love from the guy. To top it off it includes one of the sickest and most memorable gore sequences ever to be caught on celluloid. It may not be the best Cronenberg film, but it’s definitely a strong one and catapulted Cronenberg into the mainstream and inspired a host of cheap, and sometimes good, sequels about a decade later. Sequels go as follows: “Scanners II: The New Order”, “Scanners 3: The Takeover”, “Scanner Cop” and “Scanners: The Showdown”.
Written By Eric Reifschneider

Sunday, August 3, 2014

New Tale of Zatoichi (1963)

Director: Tokuzo Tanaka
Notable Cast: Shintaro Katsu, Seizaburo Kawazu, Mikiko Tsubouchi

After being impressively swayed by the dramatic depth and entertaining characters of the first two films of the Zatoichi franchise, I was ecstatic to dig into the third entry New Tale of Zatoichi. What villainous story would be told? What new elements would be unveiled as Zatoichi continues his trek? Interestingly enough, this third film would mostly depart itself from many of the more entertaining elements of the first two films – including most of the humor and action set pieces – in favor for the massive dramatic beats, deep atmospheric character work, and a stronger philosophical subtext. It’s even more of a slow burner than either Tale or Continues, but it’s hard to deny the brilliant level or writing and character work that kicks this third film to being just as strong as it’s first two entries.

Zatoichi (Shintaro Katsu) has decided that it is high time to return to his village for a visit after the incident with his brother. There he meets with a slew of old friends, including his old master Banno (Seizaburo Kawazu) and Banno’s sister Yayoi (Mikiko Tsubouchi). He also learns of an impending duel with Kanbei’s brother who intends to avenge his brother’s death and gets involved with an evil clan who plan on earning some money from a kidnapping. Just another normal day for Zatoichi.

Zatoichi simply hates candles.
While the first two films definitely took a dramatic and character driven spin with the samurai sword slashing genre, New Tale of Zatoichi takes it to a whole new echelon for the series thus far. The characters are richer, deeper, and more tragic this time around to really keep the audience hooked. Shintaro Katsu once again stuns as our titular antihero and the film lunges to enrichen his back story with hints towards his yakuza nature and how he is treated (and reviled) by most of society. In Shakespearian fashion, the film takes a very dark streak with all of its characters though as each one seemingly attempts to flee from a haunting past that tragically continues to sabotage their futures. Poverty plagues his homeland and even his friend, his master’s sister, is an embarrassment for not being marriage material. This lends itself a bit to the main plot, which is about a kidnapping and vengeful brother hunting down Zatoichi, but really, that’s minor compared to the atmosphere and characters.

Luckily, for a film with such a significant slow burn pace and subtle writing that relies on strong acting presence for its writing, director Tokuzo Tanaka handles it extremely well. It’s the first Zatoichi film of the series to be in color, yet Tanaka ably recreates the atmosphere and tone of the first two films and then proceeds to slather the film in visually stimulating shots that utilize the dark streaks and bright hopes for the characters in lush ways. Everything seems to carry an emotional weight in New Tale of Zatoichi even the finale where Zatoichi finally finds himself confronting a rival gang and we get our climactic and brief sword fight, it’s more for emotional punch than anything else.

Zatoichi on the road.
The lacking action and more subtle approach in New Tale will not be for everyone. Even with it’s more than impressive execution, even I felt that the film was a step down from the balance of the first two. That being said though, the emotional and storytelling impact of the film is phenomenal and more than worth the time for an audience to invest. It’s a slightly different change of focus for the franchise, but it still works in the end.

Written By Matt Reifschneider

Master, The (1980)

Director: Lu Chin Ku
Notable Cast: Yuen Tak, Chen Kuan Tai, Lin Ho Nien, Wang Lung Wei

Outside of knowing Chen Kuan Tai, I went into The Master with relatively no expectations. I knew the film was from 1980 and I knew that it was a kung fu centered flick being part of Tokyo Shock’s kung fu line from Shaw Brothers, but that’s about it. Needless to say, like many of the Shaw films from this era, The Master is a mixed bag overall. It’s a fun film balanced on a charismatic lead performace and some ridiculously tiring acrobatic kung fu set pieces, but the hit or miss humor and the simplicity of the film don’t necessarily bode for a memorable flick.

When a traveling kung fu master Jin Tien-yun (Chen Kuan Tai) decides to end the underhanded debauchery of the Three Devils, he is betrayed and left terribly wounded. He finds shelter in the home of a young martial arts student Gao Jian (Yuen Tak), who then begins to learn under his secret teaches. When the Three Devils begin to hunt down the injured master, the young man must step up to the plate and figure out a way to stop them before the destroy everything.

It's not classic Shaw without a training montage!
On paper, The Master is a serviceable kung fu flick with a solid revenge twist in the latter half, gimmicky villains that our hero must defeat in sequential order, and a good dose of themes about loyalty, courage, and hard work. It’s not a whole lot more than that, but down at the basics this film works. Yuen Tak, known for being part of the same troupe as Golden Harvest legends like Jackie Chan, Sammo Hung, and Yuen Baio, delivers a fun performance as the young student of the more serious and stern Chen Kuan Tai. This leads the audience to really root for him as he works his way up to being a master himself as he heads towards an inevitable showdown with the Three Devils. The supporting cast is hit or miss, mostly due to some of the slapstick humor on display here – an obvious attempt from Shaw Brothers as they desperately tried to insert the comedy that was working over at Golden Harvest in the early 80s, and it lends the film to being a mixed bag on its foundation.

Director Lu Chin Ku and fight choreographer Hsu Hsia correct some of the cliché elements and forced humor in the film with style. The former adds some slick visual work to keep us interested even when the film meanders too far away from what’s working and the latter steals the show with the ridiculously entertaining battles of the film. Seriously though, Yuen Tak is one hell of a gymnast to be able to pull off the acrobatics of the fight sequences. Partnered with some great sets for him to use to defeat the Three Devils, the fights in The Master are easily the highlight of the film and the one true reason to delve into the film.

This is a massively difficult high five they are attempting.
While I had a lot of fun with The Master, it’s probably not going to make my favorite Shaw Brothers list. It’s generally a pretty generic film and it’s obvious at times that the Shaw Brothers were scrapping to make this film a crowd pleaser. They even threw in a sequence with some topless prostitutes that sticks out like a sore thumb in the narrative scheme. The fights are pretty brilliantly shot and choreographed, but beyond that and a charming lead performance The Master is mostly for die hard fans.

Written By Matt Reifschneider