Sunday, March 22, 2015

Dust of War (2015)


Director: Andrew Kightlinger
Notable Cast: Steven Luke, Jordan McFadden, Gary Graham, Bates Wilder, Hank Ostendorf, Doug Jones, Tony Todd

At Blood Brothers, we have always been fond of low budget movies, and in particular, low budget films in the lesser-known genres. Finding out that Dust of War is a post-apocalyptic flick filmed for roughly $200,000 and starring some of our favorite cult actors only piques the interest. And while its low budget certainly hinders the ‘larger than life’ concept of the film, there is thoughtfulness to its science fiction infused plot that rises above what a lot of low budget films set out to accomplish - an art form to the low budget, if you will.

The rumors have been heard. A young woman is supposed to be a harbinger of peace between the invading alien forces and what’s left of humanity in a desolate world. Unfortunately, this young woman (Jordan McFadden) is being held captive by a vicious rogue military unit (lead by a milky eyed Bates Wilder) and it’s up to two men (Steven Luke, Gary Graham) to find her and get her to safety.

Is that a Sam Raimi angle there? I think it is!
While the premise itself is a well treaded one (I just watched Jupiter Ascending and Babylon A.D. that featured the ‘young woman as savior of the world concept’), Dust of War takes a more character focused and subtle approach to the material. Instead of focusing on the aliens versus human approach that many science fiction films would have adopted, this one instead opts for a more subdued and Mad Max inspired focus. Our almost dialogue-less hero Abel is purposefully left as a sort of anti-hero in the film (although anti-hero might be a bit extreme, so let’s just say apathetic) that allows him plenty of room for his character arc – which is subtle, but there in the sort of romantic subplot with our prize harbinger Ellie. There are plenty of long shots and slow panning character beats to emphasize the film’s streaks of art house in the land of grindhouse, which is key to Dust of War and its depth as a visual storyteller. In addition, the film also only features a couple scenes of the aliens to remind us of the ‘why’ without sacrificing the ‘who and where’ of the plot’s motion. It’s a nice touch that adheres to the budget and the sensibility of the film where the aliens are not the focus.


Sometimes the shifting between the two elements (the character driven slow moving plot and the grindhouse post-apocalyptic action) can be a bit hard to take as there are moments when the film seems to be taking itself too seriously and then not seriously enough. The restrained budget certainly forces the film to pull away from some of the ridiculous action that director Andrew Kightlinger obviously wanted in the final act including a fun car chase sequence. It leaves Dust of War feeling a bit too ambitious for its own good. This is rectified somewhat by some of the sheer onscreen charisma of its cast, both Gary Grahm (ROBOT JOX FOR THE WIN!) and Doug Jones (HELL BOY FOR THE DOUBLE DOWN!) simply eat scenery here, and the film’s ambition – while not necessarily the best choice for $200,000 - does contain an energy that many low budget films can lack. So there is that for the vulgar auteurs out there and Dust of War gets an ‘A’ for effort.

"The LAZY EYE!" (How can I not throw in a Fievel Goes West reference?
This leaves Dust of War as a massively ambitious film with a lot of heart – even if some of the budget constraints hinder the overall execution of the film, i.e. an occasional change of scenery might have done the trick to ramp up the middle portion that drags on…like a cave or something for a shootout. Nonetheless, for $200,000 there is a lot of thoughtful promise to the various individuals involved with the film. The blend of arthouse and grindhouse aspires to something more grand (particularly for director Kightlinger) and the ending that leaves a franchise open always gets me excited – particularly where a series of these films could go with a following and some money.

Written By Matt Reifschneider

Spring (2015)

Directors: Justin Benson, Aaron Moorhead
Notable Cast: Lou Taylor Pucci, Nadia Hilker, Vanessa Bednar, Shane Brady, Francesco Carnelutti, Holly Hawkins

Spring is one of the 'freshest' movies I've seen in quite some time. As I was watching it, the thought that kept cropping up into my head was "this feels new, and yet familiar, but yeah, definitely new". That is my biggest compliment for the film. It takes the familiarity of a love story and puts a spin on it via a mesh of various genres, making it something quite different from anything I've seen recently.

A man loses his mother and his job and moves to Italy. He falls in love. That is all I'll say on the story. It's simple. It's straightforward. It's brilliant. We see his interactions with various people in a Ben Wheatley style set of very believable vignettes as he wanders around in Italy with nothing to lose.

It's what I really enjoyed about the film. I just liked the simplicity in its progression of the story, but it never drags or feels slow. You follow our leading man, Evan, around in his new life in Italy, watching his relationship with a mysterious woman he meets by chance slowly unfold and bloom into something... unique. I really hate spoiling things, but if you you have not seen any advertising or read up on anything about the film, then stop reading this review, do yourself a favor, and seek out Spring. It's one of my favorite movies of the year so far.


The chemistry and romance that rather quickly develops between the two leads is well executed and highly believable. When things go crazy towards the end, some certain people may be put off by it depending on your taste for what you like or expect in or out of movies, but I was able to go with it, because it's a movie, and not everything should be grounded in reality.


Also, as a whole, it has this great free flowing spirit about it, all the way down to the cinematography and camera movements, which I was highly impressed with [aside from some lighting issues, but hey, considering almost everything is shot outdoors and on a smaller budget, it looks gorgeous]. I still wonder how they pulled off some of the shots the way they did. One of the co-directors of the film [Aaron Moorhead] actually did the cinematography himself, which as an aspiring filmmaker myself, sort of delighted me once I saw the credits roll.

There's also a nice blend of practical and digital effects. The only visual that threw me off a bit was this slow motion shot of blood spraying from something [no spoilers], which hindered the experience slightly [along with some effects that 'flail' about here and there]. Also the effects for you know who looked wonderful and actually caused me to wear a big goofy disturbed smile on my face.


I've heard from various people through different reviews and articles on the film, that Spring is a big step forward for them in almost every way possible. I never got to see their previous film, Resolution, but this has me wanting to seek it out more than ever. It's clear they have a real passion for cinema and it shows on screen. Spring is most definitely a breath of fresh air. Bravo guys!


Written By Josh Parmer

Saturday, March 21, 2015

Dracula Untold (2014)


Director: Gary Shore
Notable Cast: Luke Evans, Sarah Gadon, Dominic Cooper, Art Parkinson, Charles Dance

When a company like Universal announces they want to do a sort of ‘cinematic universe’ featuring all of their classic horror monsters, they have our attention. As franchise whores, it’s easy for Blood Brothers to support this kind of ideology no matter how terrible it might seem on the onset. For their kick off flick, the rebooted mythology of perhaps their most iconic “villain” in Dracula Untold, Universal seem intent on resetting the ground work and building from scratch. Luckily for those of us versed in the world of Universal Monsters, Dracula Untold takes a rather new approach to the monster of lore and finds a rather fun and punchy way to tell us a ‘new’ story.

For Vlad (Evans), his rise to being the king of Transylvania was a hard one. Bred to be vigilant and fierce soldier, his status as a warrior for the Turks created legends around him. Yet, he rules over his lands and people in relative peace, taking a thoughtful and humanitarian approach. When the Turks threaten him to force 1,000 young men to fight in their armies, he approaches a mysterious monster in the mountains to gain the power needed to fight a war he never wanted.

March vamps, march!
While film and television watchers have seen something like ten billion versions of the Prince of Bats, Dracula Untold does attempt something a bit refreshing with his tale. Sure we’ve seen anti-heroic Draculas before, family oriented Draculas before, and supernatural monster versions of Draculas before, but Untold unfolds all of that into an almost fictionalized medieval account of his life. The blending of swords and armor (ala Lord of the Rings style in many ways), some tongue-in-cheek action set pieces, and just a hint of horror makes Dracula Untold a genre bending affair that certainly appealed to me as entertainment. The action is a bit of style over substance overall with plenty of slow motion, CGI, and whipping camera shots, but the film owns its action with relative ease. Call me silly for enjoying it, but having Dracula slaughter a 1,000 man army with his bare hands and then walk back to his village spouting “negotiations failed” fed into my love of the ridiculous and in that way Untold most certainly entertains. It’s out there, but dammit, it’s fun.


When the film attempts to be more serious is where it tends to show its shaky foundations. The family elements are supported nicely enough to give the viewer an indication on where the film might be headed, but a lot of the themes about higher moral ground and teaching his son to be a thoughtful ruler are brushed over for the same entertaining action I mentioned previously. The film under uses it’s villains and lacks the punch to thoroughly examine his furthering descent into darkness as the film plays on – leaving a lot of intriguing elements like his immunity to religious artifacts or why his own people attempt to burn him at the beginning of the third act without a lot of emotional depth.

Yet, throughout the film’s attempts at creating its own universe of medieval warfare and supernatural ‘bat slams,’ the best part arrives at the mythology of the vampire and Dracula’s – and here comes the title – untold relationship with it. Played with divine and sinister delight by Charles Dance, there are hints and horrors that are touched on with some cleverly worded dialogue and an epilogue in modern times that screams to be built on. So many questions are left hanging by the finale and the build there, that by the time the credits were rolling, Dracula Untold felt more like a prequel to a film we have yet to see. As intriguing as that is as a cliffhanger, it’s also a bit disappointing that the film doesn’t quite stand on its own as well as it could have.

Rough morning look.
In the end though, the massive action set pieces, a dark performance from Luke Evans, and the fun to be had in Dracula Untold washes over a lot of the potential depth that the script was missing out on. As entertainment, the film flies on bat wings much higher than I expected. As a solid piece of film, it tends to disappoint a little – but given that it’s the start of something much bigger, one can forgive some of the little things that (hopefully) will be used later.

Written By Matt Reifschneider

Friday, March 20, 2015

Re:Action - It's Time to Reboot Double Dragon


Go ahead, internet. Take your best shot. If there was ever a video game that needed a proper film treatment, it’s not fuckin’ Halo. That shit is already cinematic. Trying to punch that kind of epic storyline into a film that will appeal to the gamer community and non-gamer community is bound to crash and burn in only the grandest manner. So let’s look to another video game series that truly needs a proper film treatment: Double Dragon.

That’s okay, I can already hear a lot of groans and moans from the various people reading this. I know, I know. We’ve already had one Double Dragon film and it was terrible. Not even in a ‘so terrible, it’s awesome’ kind of terrible. It was straight up TERRIBLE. To that point, I will agree. The 90s family oriented Super Mario Bros meets 3 Ninjas is hard to defend in almost any regard. The film lacks any kind of truly inspired action and the attempted depth of its class war plot is hardly anything worth your time. So why don’t we just remember the lessons learned here and move on with our lives. Let’s take this game and give it a proper treatment.

No more of this, please.
The key for this reboot to work is that the initial audiences for the first Double Dragon film were the same individuals that played the game – kids. I was nine when the movie came out and my brother and I were stoked to see it. We were fans of the games and I remember renting Double Dragon II repeatedly from the local video store. So it was meant to appeal to that same audience and that’s how, in hindsight, it ended up being shit. Now those kids are adults. Take that rather simple beat n’ bash game and convert it into a film catered towards adults. Kids might not understand what Double Dragon is any more, so play it to the audience that does. It actually seems pretty legitimate if you think about it.

The core of the original Double Dragon game was damn near designed to be a martial arts/action flick. The story is simple and the action is relentless. This caters perfectly to the action film world. You can keep some undertones of political unrest or even throw in a bit of the mysticism that would show up in the game, (Fighting shadow doubles? I’ll fucking take that) but keep the film simple and focused. Take The Raid and blend it with a hint of The Purge: Anarchy. You could probably even take this film and make it ridiculously high quality for nothing in budget. Make it gritty, but keep it entertaining.

More of this, please.
With that kind of tone and concept, one could do a lot with the Double Dragon franchise tag. Build a nice little universe for it to exist in, populate it with gimmicky (but not cartoonish) characters, and let it develop itself. If you give it to a director who knows low budget action and how it works (my choice would be Isaac Florentine, but then again I’d like him to direct every martial arts action movie for US audiences) and throw in two charming stuntmen turned actors in the lead two roles and this is born to feed into its own fan base.

Truthfully, a rebooted Double Dragon franchise only makes sense. You can make it for cheap, cater to the audience that grew up with the game, and with a streamlined script it doesn’t even have to be complicated. Look at the success that Mortal Kombat: Legacy and Street Fighter: Assassin’s Fist are having online. Maybe I’m just a starry-eyed action dreamer, but give me an adult oriented action film version of Double Dragon and I’ll be there in my Sunday best. 

Written By Matt Reifschneider

Do you think a Double Dragon reboot should happen? Who would you cast as your Billy and Jimmy Lee? Spit some blood below and let us know what you think!

Thursday, March 19, 2015

R-100 (2015)

Director: Matsumoto Hitoshi
Notable Cast: Nao Omori, Shinobu Terajima, Hitoshi Matsumoto, Ai Tominaga, Eriko Santo, Naomi Watanabe, Suzuki Matsuo, Atsuro Watabe, Gin Maeda, Katagiri Hairi, Lindsay Kay Hayward, Mao Daichi

Matsumoto Hitoshi has crafted a modern comedy masterpiece. If that is a bold or ridiculous statement, then maybe the humor in this film doesn't quite deliver what you find funny, but for me and the friend I watched it with, we both laughed very loudly throughout the entirety of the bizarre whirlwind that is R-100.

A man named Takafumi Katayama decides to sign a contract with a man who runs a BDSM organization with a simple and brilliant name... Bondage (completely with a fancy 'B' letter design that crops up throughout). This said contract has a group of dominatrices that show up to 'pleasure' him here and there throughout his day for a year straight. The fun part is they can show up when requested, or they'll just show up whenever, throwing in a randomness dynamic that creates some hilarious scenes.

This is another film where I really don't want to tell too much about because there are just so many fantastic moments throughout. I went from smiling and chuckling here and there to laughing the hardest I have in a very long time, and pretty much constantly for the entire 2nd half of the film. The pacing may throw some off, but it's intentional and has what I dub as the "Audition" formula. Those that don't know, Audition is a film by Takashi Miike. Anyway, this film has a similar style of pacing, as in it's slow-going but the payoff is extraordinary, only with this movie it really takes off about 35-40 minutes in.

The mood and tone is pretty unique and the film has a few serious moments that only last for a fraction among the chaos, and they work. There is a human element to all of the characters and you care for all of them no matter how weird things get, and trust me, they get weird.

Another thing worth mentioning is this film's craft. It's shot and framed excellently, especially for comedic effect [see the scene in which Takafumi is in the bed store where a man gives him a certain warning, for a great example], and there are lots of fantastic cuts and sound design choices that left me impressed, though I really must stress not wanting to give almost anything away at all.

Matsumoto really says a lot about the rating system and the absurdity of it [the title R-100 is a spoof on the Japanese rating system itself] and peoples' expectations and what they get themselves into when they go into films, which comes in the form of poking at critics and the average movie goer via some very meta moments scattered throughout. I think one of my favorite aspects is the fact that each of the dominatrices that visit him have different titles and different things they do, with my personal, and the crowd favorite it seems, being The Saliva Queen [you'll know when you get there].

The only little things worth noting is some questionable cg that appears here an there [but only a couple of instances]. It works in the film, but it is just a tad noticeable. It's nothing worth marking the film down for, but it's worth mentioning. On a plus side though, there are some great, silly prosthetic effects that too work in context of the film, and they are brilliant.

I really enjoy this one from start to finish and I am convinced that one day Matsumoto will become more respected stateside, it just may take longer than it needs to. I cannot wait to see what the man does next. My favorite comedy of last year, and easily in my top 10. One not to be missed for those who want something different and fun. Makes a nice double-bill with Sion Sono's Why Don't You Play in Hell [both picked up by Drafthouse Films here in the U.S].

Written By Josh Parmer

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Zatoichi and the Fugitives (1968)


Director: Kimiyoshi Yasuda
Notable Cast: Shintaro Katsu, Takashi Shimura, Kayao Mikimoto, Kyosuke Machida, Yumiko Nogawa, Hoswi Komatsu, Shobun Inoue, Jotaro Semba, Jutaro Hojo, Koichi Mizuhara

“Darkness makes no difference to a blind man.” –Zatoichi

Director Kimiyoshi Yasuda struck some serious gold with his last entry into the Zatoichi series with Zatoichi’s Cane Sword and I was looking forward to what he would have to offer in his next installment Zatoichi and the Fugitives. There are a lot of things to enjoy about this eighteenth entry for fans of the series and conceptionally the film hits some great beats, but it does tend to lack a bit of the emotional resonance it could have had…with a bit of focus shifting. The potential for this film is bigger than the result.

Zatoichi (Shintaro Katsu), while continuing his endless journey, finds himself in the house of elderly doctor (Taktashi Shimura) his daughter (Kayao Mikimoto) for a short duration. Unfortunately, a cruel and corrupt official (Hosei Komatsu) in the town has been enforcing some poor work habits on the local women. When a gang of ruthless fugitives shows up as hired hands, Zatoichi may find himself outnumbered by a talented and vicious group.

A walk through the forest
Similar to Zatoichi’s Cane Sword, Fugitives has a darker edge to the film that earns itself some solidarity throughout. The film leans towards a more violent tone and it uses its dual villains to really push some of the darker tones. In fact, it’s the titular villains that represent something unique to this film. By now our blind hero has slaughtered hordes of ‘entrepreneurial’ yakuza and samurai for hire, but he has never met a group of men who simply kill for fun with little in the motivation for business. They are ‘hired’ by a corrupt official in this film, but these fugitives pose the real threat. This leads to what might also be the biggest disappointment in Fugitives, when the film careens a bit too far to focus on the corrupt official as a villain and not enough on this band of killers – leaving the viewer wondering what might have been if the film had simplified itself even more and focused on a man who inherently fights for good versus a group who inherently fights for destruction.

Let's hope he makes a sharp decision.
 Zatoichi as a character tends to follow the same character arc we have seen a few times over, but due to the villainous group of the title he finds himself at odds and seemingly outnumbered for the first time in a long time. There is even a moment where we find our hero gravely wounded (from a gun shot) and at the mercy of some of the strong secondary characters for help. There is a sort of family dynamic for the old man doctor and his daughter that feels a bit dry in depth at times though. Considering how large of a role they play in the plot progression in the latter half – including the shelter of Zatoichi when he is injured - the emotional impact of the finale seems a bit lost as the film places the plot before the characters arcs. It’s still strong overall, but the potential here is massive.

Lighting the way.
If anything, Zatoichi and the Fugitives is the film that suffers because the potential for its epic head-to-head character clashes and strong story telling is huge. The dark streaks, the family dynamics, the villains…they are all rather unique and potentially franchise shifting. Yet, Fugitives tends to place its plot before any of that and it adheres to the formula a bit too closely. This allows the film to be good, but rarely as great as its potential would give it.

Written By Matt Reifschneider

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Tournament, The (1974)


Director: Huang Feng
Notable Cast: Angela Mao Ying, Carter Wong, Sammo Hung

As I work my way through the various films of Angela Mao Ying (thanks to some substantially convenient sets from Shout Factory), it’s become quite apparent why she captivated audiences like she did. Rarely is she portrayed as a ‘sex symbol’ in these films, but as a powerful figure breaking chains and forging new ground. For her film The Tournament, Angela Mao continues this path as a strong willed fighter. It’s potent enough that while the film lacks a lot in its execution, the good portions make it a statement still and it still comes off as rather progressive in nature.

When a ruthless gang threatens a small business, a martial arts student in Hong Kong requests of his master to go to Thailand and compete in a tournament for money. Reluctantly, the master agrees and a whirlwind of controversy about honor for Chinese martial arts begins. It’s up to the master’s daughter (Angela Mao Ying) and her brother (Carter Wong) to sort through it all and figure out a way to save face.

She'll mess you up!
Interestingly enough, for a film called The Tournament that’s about fighting in a tournament, it rarely subjects itself to the tropes of the tournament martial arts film. This isn’t Enter the Dragon or to a lesser extent Mortal Kombat, this is based on more classic martial arts tropes instead. Granted, the structure of the film is perhaps its biggest flaw. The film starts off with some corruption that leads to a young man having to pay a lot of money. This kicks off the entire reason the film heads to Thailand for a tournament. However, this is brushed off fairly quickly (hell, they even kill the young man to do so) and the rest of the film is left up to having our two main leads in defying elders to learn how to counter Muay Thai and regain face, eventually going back to Thailand for another “tournament” and more corruption.

Outside of its leap-frogging narrative, the film is obviously padded to get it to length. Considering some of the social and gender subtext, one would think that there is enough material to keep our characters from running around temples for extended periods or spending way too long with their father as he frets about the reputation and disappointment he has brought upon his school. At times it almost feels like two films with the first half focusing on the Chinese reaction and the second half being the actual event where our heroes must defeat some Thai boxers. At times, it just baffles in how it can feel so drawn out and yet be such a short film.

As an on screen presence, Angela Mao pulls the audience right in with charm.
Despite these obvious challenges, The Tournament succeeds in a variety of places. The action is top notch – with the highlight coming in the middle portion when Angela Mao must fight some Japanese instructors and then prove her competence with some other masters (including Sammo Hung). The tournament moments themselves are actually somewhat undynamic – which might have been a statement in itself about the art form of Chinese kung fu versus the brutal and straightforward pummeling of Muay Thai, but the rest of the action set pieces (no matter how forced like the second moment featuring the Japanese school) are entertaining.

Outside of another solid performance from Angela Mao Ying, some of the progressive thinking behind the story, and the action, The Tournament suffers quite a bit from a scattered narrative and some wasted time with side plots. Kung fu fans are sure to find some things to enjoy and they will appreciate the unique spin on some classic tropes, but the film itself leaves quite a bit to be desired in execution. For fans mostly.

Written By Matt Reifschneider

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Predestination (2015)


Directors: The Spierig Brothers
Notable Cast: Ethan Hawke, Sarah Snook, Noah Taylor

Time travel films can be hard to pull off. Unless you keep it basic (the first Terminator) then the results are often times heavily scrutinized by science fiction fans…no matter how entertaining or well executed the film itself is. For Predestination though, making the film from a classic Robert A. Heinlein short story added even more pressure to ‘get it right’ and it was pretty astounding that The Spierig Brothers pulled it off at all. Not only do they pull it off, they do it damn near perfectly to deliver one of the most mind-boggling time travel films of all time.

For our protagonist (Hawke), time has become so fluid that his own mind is seemingly breaking under the pressure. On top of that, his mission to uncover a time jumping terrorist known as the Fizzle Bomber has left him scarred both physically and mentally. His final mission, with the help of a young writer (Snook), might allow him to stop the Fizzle Bomber – and uncover a paradox that could end time itself.

The mystery begins...
To give this some context, I have yet to read the short story that this film is built on and thusly have no sort of comparison in that realm for the true fans out there. Watching the film though, I don’t think it ever felt necessary to read the book for more details or for better clarification of some of the more cerebral elements. Predestination most certainly feels like a contained and fully told story. Outside of the jumping structure, never did it cross my mind that it might have been said better in the source material. Knowing Heinlein stories though, I’m sure the story itself is a fascinating endeavor.


One of the big issues I had writing this review is that the storytelling in the film is so full of unique twists and massive epiphanies in its narrative that I didn’t want to give too much away to any reader who is interested in this film. As much as the film is well executed, there is a sort of unfolding experience that really makes it so damn good. The first half of the film is somewhat disorienting and strange as it spends only a few minutes setting up the plot about the Fizzle Bomber and then spends the rest of the first half in what appears to be a tangent describing the life of the young writer played with precision by Sarah Snook. Don’t let the seemingly endless recounting of events fool you though, every detail is important here and in the final act some of the smallest details are enough to twist the plot and characters in some wicked directions. The plot twists are so ridiculously well built and executed, you might want to watch it a second or third time to try and catch all of the subtle things that are thrown at you.

Simple disbelief is only one emotion you will feel in this movie.
To slather some icing on the cake, Predestination doesn’t only have a ridiculously mind blowing story, but it’s stunningly well executed. Hawke throws down another top notch performance (as always), but he might be outshined by Sarah Snook. Snook’s character arc is so impressively large and yet told so subtly in the small moments that she just leapt to being one of the names to keep an eye on in genre cinema. The Spierig Brothers have a knack for flow in keeping the story moving, despite having the film only edge on being a thriller, and for the visual narrative to compliment the script like this… it sort of baffles me that they haven’t had their names brought up in conjunction with some of the bigger projects being announced in genre films. They execute this perfectly.

Sun's out. Guns out.
The slower narrative and focus on the details may not appease all science fiction fans, but if you invest yourself into the characters then the plot pays off in dividends. The execution on and off screen is brilliant, the story is ballsy and poignant, and the resulting fall out of the discoveries for the viewer sticks with you for days after the fact. In an age where science fiction is too often considered a sub-genre of action film, Predestination is refreshingly intent and impactful with its focus on story and character. Science fiction fans rejoice, Predestination is a modern classic.

Written By Matt Reifschneider

Sunday, March 8, 2015

Golden Swallow (1968)


Director: Chang Cheh
Notable Cast: Cheng Pei-Pei, Jimmy Wang Yu, Lo Lieh, Wu Ma, Ku Feng, Lau Kar Leung, Cliff Lok, Lau Kar Wing, Yuen Woo Ping, David Chiang

Despite being a film that had a duel lead character focus, Come Drink with Me saw a massive boost from the success of the character Golden Swallow. Which, of course, deemed her worthy for a sequel…and one with the character name as the title. Thusly we are treated to Golden Swallow, the continued adventures of our deadly female enforcer from Come Drink with Me. Don’t be fooled by the title though as, once again, Golden Swallow essentially plays second fiddle to not only one protagonist, but also shares most of her screen time with her side kick. The execution of the film is solid enough and showcases some unique elements for director Chang Cheh, but overall it’s hard not to be a little disappointed with the direction it took.

When Golden Swallow (Chang Pei-Pei) is poisoned in a battle, she is saved by an unlikely friend in Iron Whip (Lo Lieh). They quickly become friends and allies as she recovers only to find out that a mysterious vigilante Silver Roc (Jimmy Wang Yu) has been using her name to raise hell with various villainous factions. So they set out to uncover the mysterious swordsman’s secret and find out why he is setting her up.

Visually, there are some great angles in the film.
To be honest, the concept for Golden Swallow is more than a little awesome. It’s the heart of wuxia with little in the way of the fantastical gimmicks (outside of one “invincible” move that is built up in the plot) and the idea of having our three main characters (all played with top notch talent from the Shaw Studio) moving towards a destined crossroads had me excited to watch. Unfortunately, the idea is much greater than the execution overall.

For Golden Swallow, Chang Cheh feels relatively reserved in his usual style and rather unique. The opening fight sequence is shot with shaped ‘bars’ to focus the viewers attention on small details (awesome!), but there is one moment where Jimmy Wang Yu’s vigilant character delivers a monologue on a white stage in front of massive Chinese characters of his letter (WTF!). This in turn makes some of the structure and narrative feel a bit forced. A romantic love triangle feels a bit loose at the hinges and splitting the narrative inbetween three lead characters undermines a lot of the more impactful emotional punch the film could have had. Keeping Jimmy Wang Yu’s Silver Roc more mysterious for longer would have intensified some of the drama and tension, but the film plays out in a lot of obvious manners. Not to mention, once again, Cheng Pei-Pei feels like an inferior character to her co-stars in many aspects – and the film seems to really pull away from the characters status as an established killer and focuses more on her more feminine and romantic attributes.


However, Golden Swallow does do a decent enough job at playing its rather obvious plot elements and undercooked concept in some entertaining ways. While the film might have benefited from keeping Jimmy Wang Yu more mysterious for the plot (I would be tempted to retitle this film as his character’s name instead of Golden Swallow), his torn psyche and penchant for badassness makes up for a lot of plot’s issues in building his character. A massive “raid” on a clan’s fortress by him results in some serious body counts in the second act (and perhaps one of the first uses of ‘shaky cam’ that I can think of to create that chaotic effect of having him battle an entire army) and the finale features a classic wuxia sword fight between him and Lo Lieh, where we get to see both characters really deepen their rather by-the-numbers roles in their actions. Golden Swallow most certainly ends on a big high note, despite a rocky ride getting there.

Leaving a trail of bodies...or a heap.
While it’s difficult for me to say that Golden Swallow isn’t disappointing in its failure to maximize its potential concept and actors, the film is a serviceable and grounded wuxia powered on great performances and a unique approach from Chang Cheh. After the spectacular first film though and the realization of how awesome this film could have been, it just seems a bit too patchy to rank up there some of the other Shaw Brothers classics.

Written By Matt Reifschneider

Saturday, March 7, 2015

300: Rise of an Empire (2014)


Director: Noam Murro
Notable Cast: Sullivan Stapleton, Eva Green, Lena Headey, Rodrigo Santoro

The original 300 didn’t quite hit me like it did so many of my friends and colleagues when it was released. It was a campy fun action spectacle with style slathered on, but the pacing and narrative issues certainly held it back. For the sequel 300: Rise of an Empire, I at least had the right mindset going in and the resulting expansion of the 300 universe was an massively enjoyable watch – even if it continues to have some major issues with scripting and characters.

While King Leonidas and his 300 Spartans are flexing their muscles and baring their ridiculously white teeth, the other Greeks have taken to Persia’s enforcement of power with a bit more strategy to match their gusto. For this chapter of the saga, it’s up to Themistocles (Stapleton) and his navy to make sure that the Persian army doesn’t attack by water and this is going to make him go head to head with Xerxes’ greatest general, Artemisia (Green.)

Now that's a kick...
At its core, 300: Rise of an Empire is essentially just more 300. You can change the color scheme and you can add in navel battles instead of cliff battles, but the new director follows in Zack Snyder’s footsteps so closely that had I not known, I might not have been able to tell the difference between the two. Stylistically, the films are ridiculously similar and it’s all digitally toned men killing each other with CGI gore in slow motion, but this time around it’s as if they decided that 300 did NOT go far enough with violence and exploitative elements. The violence is doubled, the gore is doubled, and there’s a lot more nudity to go with it. Some of it doesn’t quite make sense like how specific wounds could geyser that much blood and the sex scene that’s thrown in feels a bit forced – which might be intentional, but let’s be honest, it wholly makes this one a more entertaining film overall. At least in the Blood Brothers book.

Within the scope of more violence and bloodshed, Rise of an Empire does attempt, in good will, to change things up just enough to make it more entertaining. The naval battles are not just a lot of rowing and shooting arrows at one another like one would think for a swords & sandals flick, but it’s got more action than the first 300. Splintering wood, sieges, and even a massive explosion (they somehow got to explode a damn ship in this movie) are all par for the course here. The action is driven mostly by Eva Green as the film’s main villain, who simply spits her often silly dialogue with enough energy and venom to sink a thousand ships alone – the line “You fight harder than you fuck” is ripe for hilarity – and Stapleton, as this chapter’s hero, seems to pale in comparison despite his best efforts to be manly and philosophical about ‘freedom’ and other heroic tropes.
Hell hath no fury like a woman's scorn for Greek.
All in all, 300: Rise of an Empire is quite ridiculous and rarely stands on its attempts to be thoughtful in its dialogue or plot. The idea that it occurs at the same time as the original 300 makes for some intriguing beats for reoccurring characters from the first film, but it doesn’t quite carry enough narrative punch to truly rise above its predecessor. However, the clever use of naval action, the furious leaps of violence, and Eva Green make sure that this film is inherently more enjoyable this time around – so take it with a grain of salt.

Here’s to hoping that the cliffhanger ending is a true calling card for more sequels in the future. This is a silly franchise at this point, but one that entertains enough to bring me back for more.

Written By Matt Reifschneider

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Zatoichi Challenged (1967)


Director: Kenji Misumi

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Written By Matt Reifschneider

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Jupiter Ascending (2015)


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

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

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

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


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

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

Written By Matt Reifschneider