Monday, October 20, 2014

Kundo: Age of the Rampant (2014)

Director: Yun Jong-bin
Notable Cast: Ha Jung-woo, Kang Dong-won, Lee Sung-min, Ma Dong-seok

Going into Kundo: Age of the Rampant, I was expecting something like a kung fu Robin Hood sort of flick. I have yet to see any other film from the commercially acclaimed South Korean director Yun Jong-bin (although I have heard that Nameless Gangster is phenomenal) and thusly much of my expectations were based on the basic synopsis you’ll read below this. Boy, was I wrong. Kundo is so much more than just another Robin Hood knock off. In fact, that comparison can only really be made based on the synopsis. What Kundo actually reflects is a wide variety of genres and style, mixed together with brutal precision and executed in a massively entertaining and impactful manner.

It’s the late 1800s and the Joseon Dynasty has fallen into the greedy hands of the upper elite, forcing many of the villagers and farmers on desperate times. A young butcher (Ha Jung-woo) loses his sister and mother at the hands of a corrupt and militaristic rising star in the noble ranks (Kang Dong-won). He is rescued by a rogue band of thieves who aim to restore justice to the area, setting into motion events that will bring the two opposing forces into a bloody battle.

Bamboo forests: a staple of these films.
While the film might indicate something more grand on the scale of Red Cliff or the like, truthfully Kundo plays out in a much more basic manner, albeit painted with plenty of detailing and genre bending to make the proceeding film far from feeling rehashed. On one hand it owes much of its structure and narrative to Hong Kong wuxia films. A young man hell bent on revenge joins with a clan of talented fighters to oppose unjust corruption? Hell, even much of the sword play fits right into that dramatic visual storytelling of newer wuxia films, in particular a massive dazzling display of choreography and directorial flair in an ambush sequence set in a foggy ravine.

Yet the characters are far less ridiculous and eccentric as a wuxia normally plays out. Our hero is ably portrayed by the talented Ha Jung-woo (who’s little neck twitch was the perfect touch to complete his brazen cleaver wielding thief) and a phenomenal secondary cast including a strong man, an acrobatic mute, a snarky archer, and their fearless and knowledgable leader, whom often steals each scene, to balance it out. The humor pops up here and there in the secondary characters and it lightens up the mood just enough to prevent the ‘right versus wrong’ morality and revenge narrative from being too heavy. Kundo is littered with this compelling characters.

I have to admit that despite some phenomenal acting and some very impressive action set pieces, the MVP of Kundo happens to be the detailed and often tragic villain of the film. Kang Dong-won adds such depth and gray matter to a rather normally dastardly villain that for a good portion of the film, I was wondering if he might actually become a redemptive character and one who finds the path of the righteous through his characters’ fear and anger. Not to give anything away for how the film ends, but his character arc blossoms into one of the defining bright spots of an already stellar film. It was enough that I had to give that actor and his portrayal their own paragraph in a short length review. It’s impressive to say the least.

Showing off some skillz.
Kundo does occasionally suffer from a sticky structure (that in the first third relies on a narrator to keep the audience caught up in the historical context of the film) and there are some intriguing samurai/western motifs that pop up that may not always sit well with the casual film audience, but the film is so impressively executed onscreen and in its storytelling that rarely did it bother me like it should have. In a year where there have been plenty of pleasant surprises in the action genre, the dramatic beats and refreshing genre bending of Kundo shoots this film to being on the best of the year. Powered on the slashing swords of anti-heroes and the weight of social morality, Kundo is a must see film for all cinephiles. Robin Hood, eat your peppy heart out. 

Written By Matt Reifschneider

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Leprechaun: Origins (2014)

Director: Zach Lipovsky
Notable Cast: Dylan “Hornswoggle” Postl, Stephanie Bennett, Teach Grant, Bruce Blain, Adam Boys, Andrew Dunbar, Brendan Fletcher, Melissa Roxburgh, Emilie Ullerup

Take it for what it is, but the Leprechaun franchise earned its weight in gold by being more entertaining than good as each additional entry eclipsed the previous in outrageousness. When the decision came through to reboot the long running horror series I can’t say I entirely blame them particularly when the second Leprechaun in the Hood flick came out. That being said, Leprechaun: Origins might actually be the worst film in the entire run. For every element that was ‘so bad, it’s good’ in the previous entries, Origins is ‘so bad, I cry myself to sleep at night.’ Seriously though, what happened?

Two couples on tour of Ireland decide it’s their best interest to listen to a few locals in a small village about seeing the Stones of the Gods on the outskirts of town. The locals are even kind enough to put them up for a night in a remote cabin for the night to limit their trek. Unfortunately, there just so happens to be a hungry and pissed off leprechaun in the area ready to devour them. Talk about un-luck of the Irish.

I'd be hard pressed to remember the name for any of the characters.
In many ways, I get the idea of moving this reboot into more serious territory. By the end of the first round of Leprechaun films, it was all joke and no horror. A move back to the horror roots isn’t a fully bad decision. What was a bad decision was making it WAY too serious. For a film about a small village that sacrifices tourists to a man eating leprechaun, you have to give the audience a little room for fun. There is no fun to be found in Origins though. To make things even worse, the film is so utterly uninspired in how it goes about its tale that not only did I predict the entire film 15 minutes in, it didn’t even carry the execution to make it worth my time blurting out loud what was going to happen. There was only one kill in the film worth it as a horror flick and the rest of the ‘chase’ was boring, repetitive, and lacking any kind of tension to keep my attention. I may or may not have decided to do laundry about an hour into the film.

Yet the biggest mistake that Origins makes is that it moves the franchise from a supernatural slasher into creature feature territory. One of the big calls in the marketing was that it would be WWE star Hornswoggle’s time to star as the titular Leprechaun. Not that I know who he was previous to this film, but I sure as hell have no idea who he is after it. Looking like the bastardized child of the X-Files’ Flukie the Fluke Worm Man and a chimpanzee (I think that’s what it looks like, the director does an amicable job at never letting us see or even feel the overdrawn presence of the titular monster with blurred cameras and relentless editing), the Leprechaun sort of shambles around with Predator heat vision – oh yes, it can even see handprints! – and snatches gold before attacking its prey like an animal. So really, this has nothing in common with the entries previous.

Shit, he's a dentist too?
Outside of one kill in the film, Leprechaun: Origins has nothing good going for it. It’s cliché, misses out on its monster movie opportunities, stumbles around with no relatable or intriguing human protagonists, and then proceeds to have no fun with its concept. In fact, the movie takes itself so damn seriously that when our main heroine spouts off “Fuck you, Lucky Charms,” in reference to one of the best one liners from the franchise, I was borderline offended.

Somebody call Warwick Davis back. I’ll take a second Leprechaun in Space film now.

Written By Matt Reifschneider

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Sacrament, The (2014)

Director: Ti West
Notable Cast: AJ Bowen, Joe Swanberg, Amy Seimetz, Kentucker Audley, Gene Jones

Ti West is the kind of director that splits his audience a bit with his style. Some claim him a hack for his lacking substance to his films, others claim him a genius for his atmospheric and slow burn approach. Technically, I don’t fit into either category. I quite enjoy his throwback approach to film and his dense camera work and subtle plots, but really it’s nothing wholly original. When The Sacrament was announced I was excited, particularly with Eli Roth’s name attached as a producer, but the fact that it would be a found footage flick scared me a bit. Luckily, The Sacrament easily handles the stylistic approach with ease and ultimately reveals one of the creepiest and unnerving films of the year.

A small documentary company called Vice, featuring host Sam (Bowen) and cameraman Jake (Swanberg), has just had an interesting opportunity land in their lap. A friend (Audley) just received a letter from his sister Caroline (Seimetz) to have him come visit her in a secret compound where she has been living in recuperation from her addictions. It’s an opportunity for them to dig into a religious cult and see just what keeps people there. What they find though may surprise even the most cynical of detractors.

Can we start filming or what?
The Sacrament never seems to hide the fact that it is based (loosely, if you will) on some of the real life cult occurrences that consumed news throughout the last handful of decades. To its benefit, it uses it as ground to really build its ‘realism’ which is only accentuated by the documentary style of the film. Instead of a detriment to the film, the found footage actually adds to the entire experience. It gives it a real time sense of eerie atmosphere that just makes it feel that much more real.

Never did I feel scared in the film, like so many horror films attempt to accomplish, but West and company instead opt for that unnerving realistic factor which is executed in spades. In addition to the found footage and realistic plot just mentioned, I have to admit that it was the acting that had me hooked. AJ Bowen and Joe Swanberg handle the narrative with soft hands, never really forcing much of the subject matter in the script, so that when the finale comes about in all of its horrifying glory it packs one hell of a punch. To make it even more impactful, the ‘Father’ of this compound is enigmatically charismatic on screen and promptly eats the basic dialogue he is given. Actor Gene Jones simply owns in the role and it adds to the experience.

"Let me just out act everyone in this movie, okay?"
The Sacrament isn’t going to be a film for everyone as it certainly has that slow burn Ti West style to how it goes about its plot. At its core, it’s basic in the writing and even more basic in the premise. However, the execution is superb. The characters are all relatable, the situation unnerving, and the film magnetic. Definitely one of my favorites of the year.

Written By Matt Reifschneider

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Stage Fright (2014)

Director: Jerome Sable
Notable Cast: Allie MacDonald, Minnie Driver, Meat Loaf, Douglas Smith, Kent Nolan

Despite graduating college with a degree in theater, musicals have always been one aspect of film that have never agreed with me. They are just so presentational, so cheesy. Yet, I was rather intrigued by Stage Fright and the blend of musical and slasher horror film. I wouldn’t say I had high expectations going into this tongue-in-cheek flick, but I was fascinated enough to delve into it for review. The resulting combination between slasher and musical is certainly fun and there were some great inspired and very funny moments, but it came off ultimately as a mixed effort that lacks a bit of flow to make it all work.

Camilla (MacDonald) has already lived through one horrific experience when her mother (Driver) was brutally murdered at her Broadway debut of “The Phantom” when she was a child. She now works at a small summer theater camp with her brother (Smith) under the supervision of her guardian (Aday). When they announce that the summer show they will be performing will be a new rendition of “The Phantom,” she decides to try out for her mother’s role. Too bad someone wants to stop this show from happening and they will leave a body count to make sure it all comes down.

Nothing is scarier or sillier than kabuki theater.
At the core of Stage Fright, director/writer Jerome Sable crafts a film that is as much homage to classic slashers as it is a comedic horror flick. The humor tends to be more about timing of some of the characters’ lines and cliché moments then the spoof that I have seen a few reviews falsely claim the film to be and it creates a fun and spunky film overall. The musical numbers are delightfully tongue-in-cheek and keep the film moving forward (particularly the villain’s heavy metal style of music and a song where he repeatedly shouts “Shut your fucking face”) and the slasher elements are silly enough in their execution of gore and kills that its hard not to laugh them off at times. Occasionally, I felt like the film could have pushed some of the secondary characters even further for comedic purposes, but overall it works to create a film that a viewer can simply have fun with.

Ultimately though, Stage Fright comes off as a mixed bag. While the comedic moments work and the slasher moments work, the flow in-between the two styles can be a bit choppier than one would expect. The film starts off with a very strong balance between all of the different aspects as it blends some serious horror beats with comedic timing, but the latter half of the film tends to lose sight of getting that balance to work and the final act tends to be a little too serious for my tastes to get it to work as smoothly as it could have…particularly as the ‘twists’ of the plot start to reveal themselves to the audience.

A little slice of Meat Loaf for your evening.
For Stage Fright, the concept is a much better idea than the movie. The film is packed full of fun moments and silly aspects, but the script and flow of the feature tends to undermine much of what the film has going for itself. It’s not very often that a slasher musical slides its way into my viewing queue so Stage Fright does have that going for it. Outside of the horror and/or musical audience though, it might have be as fun.

Written By Matt Reifschneider

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Oculus (2014)

Director: Mike Flanagan
Notable Cast: Karen Gillan, Brenton Thwaites, Annalise Basso, Garrett Ryan, Rory Cochrane, Katee Sackhoff

Killer mirrors. It’s not necessarily a new subject matter when it comes to horror. Hell, we even had two entries into the Mirrors franchise, which the original was a remake to begin with. Yet, I was still hesitant to dive into Oculus despite some of its rave reviews and recommendations from friends. Could a killer mirror film truthfully be as good as people claimed? Oculus IS that good. Director/writer Mike Flanagan crafts a thoughtful and utterly creepy flick that dominates as one of the best horror films of the year. Enough so that I feel bad to not support the film when it came out in theaters.

Tim (Thwaites) has just been discharged from a mental hospital. His sister Kaylie (Gillan) is eager to help him get back on his feet in the real world. She insists that he help fulfill his promise to her first. To prove that the massive mirror in their house is what drove their father (Cochrane) insane. To prove it played tricks to entrap their mother (Sackhoff). To end its decades of deception that has devoured countless owners before it. Can they stop the evil Lasser Glass or will history simply repeat itself?

"What's that? Oh my, it's a reflection!"
The beauty of Oculus is that the film plays out like two films that intertwine into one. We actually have two sets of stories being played out in full. Firstly, we have the present day adult brother and sister duo who are set to prove and/or destroy the Lasser Glass for what it is and secondly, we have the child versions of the brother and sister duo who see their parents succumb to the tricks of the mirror. The combination of current story and flashbacks to fill the voids isn’t a wholly original concept, but Flanagan and company do their best to not only make them parallel each other. By the final act, the two stories are so intertwined that Flanagan uses imagery from both in the other plot to create this nightmarish parallel existence to show just how powerful (and similar) the two stories are and how it shapes the two lead characters. Partner this smart plot structure with strong acting work from all six of the ‘main’ characters – as their mother and father play huge roles in the older plot line – and the resulting storytelling is impressive to say the least.

Oculus is a horror movie though and no matter how artful the structure and plot progressions are, as horror fans we want to know if the film is scary or not. Well Oculus only plays up ‘boo’ scare factors sparsely unlike so many other ‘ghost’ and psychological horror flicks do. Here Flanagan instead focuses on crafting an deep atmosphere and uses visuals and disturbing concepts to scare us rather than full on gore or jump scares. Although both the gore and jump scares are present, it’s this thoughtful creepy factor that truly makes Oculus work like it does. It gets to the point that the audience is more concerned with figuring out if the horror is real or a trick of the mirror and that sets us up for those gore and jumps to be as effective as possible. We root so strongly for our protagonists not to fall into the influence of the mirror that when we see something as simple as the sister bite into an apple (which may or may not be a lightbulb) we are screaming at the top of our lungs for her not to…in a way falling into the mirror’s influence ourselves and letting our own perceptions of the film be tricked.

"I've got your back...FROM THE GRAVE."
Horror in 2014 might be weak overall, but the smart and wicked execution of Oculus highlights that modern horror is not dead and can be just as impactful as it was three decades ago. It creates a relationship for the characters that makes the nightmare they have to live through a nightmare for us no matter how ridiculous the plot might seem. Mike Flanagan has made quite a splash with his feature length debut and I’m whole-heartedly looking forward to see where he goes from here with his career.

Written By Matt Reifschneider

Sunday, October 5, 2014

Here Comes the Devil (2014)

Director: Adrian Garcia Bogliano
Notable Cast: Laura Caro, Francisco Barreiro, Michele Garcia, Alan Martinez

While many horror films will garner mixed reviews overall from various sites and reviewers, I usually stick to particular ones for recommendations. It was from these various sources that I kept hearing about Here Comes the Devil and how creepy it was. This Mexican horror flick is definitely creepy at times, but the overall quality and flow of the film didn’t do a whole lot for me as it randomly shifted gears throughout and tried to balance out the grindhouse aspects with the arthouse elements.

During a family outing on the outskirts of town, two young kids (Garcia and Martinez) go missing in the rocky hillside. Stricken with grief, their parents (Caro and Barreiro) vow to figure out what happened to their children. It doesn’t take long for the kids to magically reappear though and it leaves the spouses relieved but slightly confused. When their kids begin to act relatively odd in the aftermath though they decide they need to figure out just what happened in that time span.

"Aw shit, contacts went white again."
The most intriguing aspect about Here Comes the Devil arises from its rapidly changing focuses throughout the film. For some this leaping of styles might be considered unique or clever as director Bogliano even goes as far as jumping into different horror subgenres, but to be honest, I found it utterly distracting and disjointed. The film starts off as a pure grindhouse flick opening on a lesbian sex scene before rapidly exploding into a gruesome serial killer sequence (which knowing the synopsis ahead of time had me slightly confused) before it heads off towards the main chunk of the film with the parents and their missing children. At this point, outside of some more random sex sequences, the film takes on a more realistic approach to the film focusing on a dysfunctional family environment and even goes as far as moving into torture-esque revenge territory as the parents become convinced that their children have been molested by a weird man on the outskirts of the city. It’s not until the final act does the truly creepy aspects of the film come into play (shifting into a possession film at this point) and we get some clever twists that actually work. It’s like a massive roller coaster ride as Here Comes the Devil shifts tone and focus to get film going and unfortunately, I wasn’t fully enjoying the ride.

The execution is solid enough with some subtle and impressive performances from the two main adult actors and the sound editing and visuals definitely work for the heavy atmosphere of the film, even if a random sequence featuring a scared babysitter gets rather trippy for the sake of trippy. The kids don’t get a lot of time to show a ton of their skills as most of the film requires them to simply be odd and it does hinder the impact of their change that could have sold the film even further. The random bits of gore and supernatural elements work for what they are in the horror aspects and do add a bit of pizzazz to a film that’s mostly focused on being emotionally heavy.

Didn't mother ever teach you not to play under boulders?
In the end though, it doesn’t matter how well a film is executed if the foundation it is built on is flawed which is the case with Here Comes the Devil. The awkward shifts of tone and focus for the film undermined the entire experience and atmosphere of the film enough that it was hard for me to even keep my attention on what the endgame of the film was let alone be drug into its deeper elements. Many of the attempted messages of parenting and marital issues are undermined by the grindhouse aspects (we get it, sex is symbolically evil and bad things happen when sex is involved) and in the end I found Here Comes the Devil to be a series of missed opportunities instead of an artful horror flick. I seem to be in the minority on this one though, so take it with a grain of salt. Here Comes the Devil is definitely an experience to watch – good or bad.

Written By Matt Reifschneider

Friday, October 3, 2014

Possession of Michael King, The (2014)

Director: David Jung
Notable Cast: Shane Johnson, Ella Anderson, Cara Pifko

So far this year, horror has been (more or less) pretty damn mediocre. Combine that with the dime-a-dozen nature of possession films and you could say that I didn’t necessarily want to dive into The Possession of Michael King with a whole lot of enthusiasm. Yet, I have to admit that this straight to home video, semi-found footage, possession flick came a rather efficient and creepy surprise to me. On paper the film looks like it might be damn near everything I dislike in the current horror genre, but the resulting film in The Possession of Michael King is a frightening look into the spiraling nightmare that one man creates in his attempts to search for a dark side to the spiritual life.

Michael (Johnson) has never been a believer in God or any other religious element despite his wife’s continued attempts at persuading him. After an accident takes his wife and leaves him on his own with his young daughter, he becomes obsessed with disproving religious elements in all the darkest ways imaginable. While his sister helps him with his daughter, he decides he’s going to create a documentary about his trials and tribulations with the black arts…and what he’s going to discover is that some things are not meant to be played with.

Finding yourself can take you to some wacky the flea market.
The Possession of Michael King is not a full fledge ‘found footage’ horror film. Yes, the style of hand held cameras, security footages, and playback are all present for the entire film, but never is this film indicated to be ‘found footage’ of this event. Director David Jung allows the film to play out more in a traditional manner and only uses the camera style and editing to build on atmosphere, tension, and scares. The pacing for the film is particular and impactful at times although occasionally it does get a bit too ridiculous (the actual demonic summoning ritual is almost laugh inducing instead of scary,) but the film moves in such ways that even the more outrageous beats are not apparent immediately. It’s not an element that’s easy to pull off for films utilizing this approach, but Michael King seems competent in doing so…much to my surprise.

So there are a few elements that don’t quite make sense throughout due to the stylistic choices, but overall the film plays out like a nightmarish decent into a possession fueled hell. It’s a film that is remarkably subtle with some of its scares and tension, there is a running theme with ants that works to punctuate this as time goes on and his possession gets stronger and stronger, and it’s driven by a pretty phenomenal performance from Johnson as the titular Michael. His transformation, not only in acting but also in slight make up changes and some strong visual effects in the final act, is truthfully the highlight of the film and Michael King takes full advantage of his talents in many ways.  Whether it’s the more subtle anger that arises when his wife is mentioned or the more traditional creepy-voice laden demonic portion at the end, Michael King is propelled by his work.

Oh, that's 7 years of really bad luck.
It’s not necessarily a film for everyone and perhaps I was in the right mood for a film like this, but considering the trashy possession films that have been hitting the market lately (see my review for The Quiet Ones here) The Possession of Michael King is a well executed and refreshing spin on the genre. It’s tight in the writing, paced extremely well with just enough surprises to keep it interesting, and it’s motivated by an impressive lead performance to make it all work together. It’s not a wholly unique horror experience, but the resulting film certainly hit all the right buttons.

Written By Matt Reifschneider

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Almost Human (2014)

Director: Joe Begos
Notable Cast: Graham Skipper, Josh Ethier, Vanessa Leigh

The impact of John Carpenter recently is something else. Whether it’s the mainstream release homage in The Purge: Anarchy or the low budget worship that is contained here in the science fiction horror of Almost Human, his presence is becoming such a force in the young filmmakers that it’s impossible to ignore. This low budget flick owes so much to Carpenter that at times it’s startling and unlike the other film I just mentioned, the execution of that influence is not nearly as impressive this time around. There might be an underground midnight cult film to be found in Almost Human, but it was hard for me to get through some of the massive flaws to even enjoy it in that manner.

Two years previous, Seth (Skipper) finds himself running from some menacing lights in the night sky. In the process of hiding, his friend Mark (Ethier) goes missing. No one knows what happened and Seth’s memory is a bit fuzzy about the events. Mark has returned though and he’s not himself. He seems driven by an unearthly force and his intentions seem less than humane.

Mondays always get me down too.
Almost Human is one of those films that I desperately want to like as it’s obviously made with a lot of effort on a very, very low budget. Unfortunately, there are some aspects of this film that make it extremely hard to do. Firstly, the acting is borderline atrocious. Outside of some fun The Thing inspired ‘possession’ work from Ethier in the latter portions of the film the rest of the cast struggles to pull off the rather intriguing concepts and scenes. Their dialogue certainly doesn’t help so that when Seth confronts Jen about the return of her missing husband it comes off as cringe worthy rather than an emotional beat to really drive the final act forward. The film also suffers from its budgetary restraints when it comes to the special effects. I have to admit, that for what they had they did particularly well, but the results are still a rather mixed affair as it blends a bit of Invasion of the Body Snatchers into the pot with its plot progressions.

That being said, there is an underground cult status atmosphere emanating from Almost Human that will play to certain crowds. The film randomly takes some grindhouse swings at time in the final act with its bursts of violence (and a sequence where Mark attacks his ex-wife that comes out of nowhere, but certainly made me pretty uncomfortable and worked to really solidify him as a villain) and in these moments of extremity, one can see that there might be some underground appeal. For this reviewer, the attempted blends of serious science fiction character beats with the grindhouse horror elements didn’t quite gel as well as one would have hoped.

Reality TV? No way!
Almost Human is simply a disappointment overall. The John Carpenter influence partnered with some of the solid atmosphere and charming low budget elements make me want to enjoy this film more, but the sub-standard acting and messy plot progressions bog the film down to the point that it was hard to get into it. For some various people that are willing to overlook its issues, the film will work. For me though, it was a missed opportunity to create a thrilling and impactful sci-fi horror flick.

Written By Matt Reifschneider

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Firestorm (2014)

Director: Alan Yuen
Notable Cast: Andy Lau, Yao Chen, Gordon Lam, Hu Jun, Ray Lui, Phillip Keung, Kenny Wong, Oscar Leung, Michael Tong

The reach of John Woo has been pretty massive. Whether it’s in Hollywood or Hong Kong, his style of taking mediocre scripts and making them massively entertaining films has been a foundational move for action filmmaking. Going into a film like Firestorm (and no, this not the film with Howie Long), you almost have to assume that it’s going to be John Woo-ish. Which, of course, Firestorm is most definitely inspired by the gun fu, bullet ballet focus. Like many films that pull that direction Firestorm is hindered by a messy script, but the resulting cops n’ robbers entertainment that it presents is a blast to watch still.

Lui Ming-chit (Andy Lau) has spent a good portion of his career in Hong Kong trying to bring down the crime lord Cao (Hu Jun). After a vicious armored truck heist though, he might have the edge to get into the loop of the crime syndicate. How far will he go to take down his nemesis though? Will he risk everything he stands for?

"I have a mask and an I look like I'm robbing anything?"
The structure of Firestorm is the film’s biggest obstacle on itself. To put it plainly, there’s too much going on. In essence, one is following two separate storylines. One for our police officer hellbent on bringing down the criminals and one for a recently released member of said criminal organization who has to figure out what his future holds. Both are intriguing, but both are too much for one film to handle. Each one has some solid emotional punches for their characters (although the subplot with Andy Lau and his ex-criminal friend and his daughter was impactful, it could have been emotionally devastating with a bit more time to embellish it), but the film has trouble balancing the two and still making a film that explodes with action. Director Alan Yuen does an admirable job with a majority of the film, but it’s simply too much script, too many characters, and not enough time for it to work with the intertwining stories like it could have.

Outside of that, Firestorm is a fucking blast. Alan Yuen does an admirable job with the action set pieces (although his transitions seriously need work) and the film is populated with strong charismatic actors to pull it off in what little time they have. The film is appropriately diverse in its action too. It has gravity defying fist fights on a platform between buildings, heists, cat and mouse chases, car stunts, and a massive Heat inspired finale with enough explosions and artistic bullet work to make the obvious inspiration, John Woo, blush.

"Cough it up, crook!"
Although I have seen better action cop thrillers this year with better scripts and more impactful writing, Firestorm is still a massively entertaining John Woo inspired romp. It has all the elements of a winning film, it just can’t quite get them to work together in a more cohesive way. If you’re looking for a solid gun fu film though, it’s hard not to recommend Firestorm even with its flaws.

Written By Matt Reifschneider

Mystery Road (2014)

Director: Ivan Sen
Notable Cast: Aaron Pedersen, Hugo Weaving, Ryan Kwanten, Tony Barry, Jack Thompson

One has to admire a person that damn near does all of the major pieces for a film. If I am not mistaken, Ivan Sen might as well have acted all the roles in the film as he not only write and directed Mystery Road, but he was also the editor, cinematographer, and composer for the film. Considering the high-end execution of this subtle and slow burning drama thriller, I have to commend this film for those looking for a rather atmospheric flick... even if the writing comes off as a bit predictable and it leaves some of the subtle subplots feeling unfinished.

Jay (Pedersen) returns to the small Outback town he grew up in as a detective with a new outlook on life. He doesn’t return under the best circumstances as he begins to investigate the death of a young girl left in a ditch. The locals seem hesitant to let him back into their affairs though and once he starts to dig; he uncovers a much bigger crime that might leave him buried in his birthplace.

Outbackin' it up.
One thing I do have to recommend about Mystery Road, it’s that the film certainly sticks with you long after the film is done. The story is fairly simple and Sen plays it with even less complication as he focuses on adding in more subtlety than explosive moments. This does hinder the film from reaching the heights of other crime dramas like Gone Baby Gone or Mystic River which feature those kinds of explosive performances and emotionally devastating endings, but the resulting execution for the film is pretty impressive. In fact, a lot of the plot is so subtle that minute details feel like they might play bigger roles later in the film like a forensic phone call that details about the weird genetics of the dog bite on the victim…which is more or less dropped to being visual cues later on. The attention to the small details of the dialogue did keep my attention front and center on the plot and it made the slow burn tempo still a riveting watch.

Partnered with some stellar performances all the way around, particularly from Hugo Weaving whose shady police character devours scenes whole, Mystery Road does have a lot going for it. The biggest issue that remains for the film though is the shaky third act. Not to give too much away, but the action oriented finale feels a bit out of the blue and many of these subtle characters are left without much of an emotional punch. The father-daughter storyline felt terribly underplayed and the finale made the missed opportunity even greater as the film plays up her ‘disappearance’ as something much bigger than it turned out to be. It simply plays out in the most predictable ways with far too many characters left to the wolves as the plot attempted to wrap itself up nicely.

Eye on the prize!
All in all though, I was particularly impressed with the sheer execution of the acting and meticulous attention to detail in Mystery Road. Sen has an eye from some subtle and impactful visuals and his character work is top notch, but the script could have used a few more drafts to flesh out more of the emotional aspects of the film. This is a director to keep an eye out for in the underground genre world as this film felt more like a test than a true attack on the art form he was attempting. Mystery Road might be flawed, but in many ways it’s these flaws that make the great aspects so appealing.

Written By Matt Reifschneider

Saturday, September 27, 2014

Adventures of Zatoichi (1964)

Director: Kimiyoshi Yasuda
Notable Cast: Shintaro Katsu, Eiko Taki, Miwa Takada, Mikijiro Hira, Kichijiro Ueda, Akatake Kono, Koichi Mizuhara, Ikuko Mori

“It’s not that I’m strong. It’s that they’re weak.” –Zatoichi

Considering that the Zatoichi franchise kicked off in 1962 and the ninth entry of the series dropped in 1964 (the fourth film in the series just that year actually), you just have to assume that there are going to be some lackluster entries. Not that Adventures of Zatoichi is a bad film overall, this series has yet to truly have a terrible film, but it is one that definitely plays it safe. For fans of Zatoichi it’s still a fine entry that contains all the elements we have come to love from these films, but the overall quality is a big step down.

Zatoichi (Shintaro Katsu)has decided to visit a small village for New Year’s day, but on the way there he is asked by a stranger to deliver a note to a young woman in one of the inns. He accomplishes the task, but when he arrives he finds the town in dire tension from a corrupt magistrate. He also becomes involved in a murder mystery from another young woman who is looking for her father, the head of a village nearby that disappeared when coming to take to the magistrate. What Zatoichi will find is a conspiracy that digs deeper and weaves all of these issues together.

Long walks is how he gets all the girls.
Truthfully there are many things to like about Adventures of Zatoichi, but few things to love about the film. The plot is an intriguing intertwining of separate threads that build into one massive mystery, but its fairly predictable through. The fight sequences might be impactful and well choreographed, but they are a bit sparse and the director fails to capitalize on making them as memorable as they could be including the finale with the soft falling snow at night. There is intriguing subtext about fathers and their sons, but the film misses some of the stronger emotional beats for it – particularly when we start to believe that perhaps the local drunk might be Zatoichi’s father. So as you can see there is a lot of opportunity for this film to build on its basics, but it misses a lot of the punches it needed to rise about being mediocre.

Perhaps the biggest issue that I have with Adventures of Zatoichi though is the lacking antagonist for the film. Most of the other films feature a somewhat memorable and divisive ronin for Zatoichi to square off against in the finale. In this film, they tease a big rivalry between a new ronin Gounosuke (played with a vicious subtlety by Mikijiro Hira of Three Outlaw Samurai and more recently 13 Assassins) and each of their meetings is lightning dynamic…but alas, like all of the examples from above, it’s too rare. Even their battle at the end misses a bit of emotional punch from being too brief. With the two phenomenal actors in these roles, this is easily one of the biggest missed opportunities.

The father/son theme runs deep in this film.
For casual Zatoichi fans, Adventures is a safe and unoffensive bet. It’s certainly not as terrible as what many other reviewers and fans seem to say it is, but it’s definitely one of the weaker entries thus far in the series. At its core, Adventures really just lacks a distinct voice like many of the other entries do and unfortunately it undermines many of the better elements. It’s a decent flick, but hardly the best. 

Written by Matt Reifschneider

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Tekken 2: Kazuya's Revenge (2014)

Director: Wych Kaos
Notable Cast: Kane Kosugi, Gary Daniels, Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa, Rade Serbedzija, Kelly Wenham, Paige Lindquist

When it comes to video game adaptations, fighting games seem to be the most popular to be translated over and, generally speaking, most of them suck. For my favorite fighting game franchise, Tekken, the first live action film was a massive let down. The cheese and terrible acting hindered a potentially fun and action packed film and lead me thinking that it killed any potential for a film franchise from one of my favorite game series. I was wrong. Out of the blue comes Tekken 2: Kazuya’s Revenge (also known as Tekken: A Man Called X – whatever the hell that means) and I was actually excited again. Kane Kosugi as Kazuya? Gary Daniels? A less is more kind of plot synopsis? I was stoked to see what they low budget actioner could bring to this franchise. As it turns out, this film is actually worse than the first one. Worse. Way worse. Enough that I have to say it’s the worst action film I’ve seen this year and that’s saying something.

Kazuya (Kosugi) wakes up in a hotel room. His memory is wiped and a police unit is after him…on top of that he’s “saved” by Rhona (Wenham) and taken to The Minister (Serbedzija). The Minister enlists his service as an assassin in the city, but Kazuya is just starting to unravel his past…to discover what his future holds.

I'd pretend to have amnesia too if I signed on to do this movie.
I’m guessing that this film wasn’t written to be a Tekken film initially. The premise of a man suffering from amnesia being used as an assassin isn’t all that original…and the way that Tekken 2 goes about using it is about as generic as possible. So what if they named a few of the characters after the game fighters? It’s still a very basic story. The terrible storytelling doesn’t sell the entire concept either. We are introduced to a pseudo-post apocalyptic world with ‘districts’ and…stuff. Kosugi is given an amnesiac assassin where he rarely is given much to get emotional over outside of some awkward flashbacks and an ill conceived romantic subplot that features one of the worst performances from an actress all year. He sort of wanders around confused and gets involved with other characters that we don’t give two shits about. Gary Daniels returns as his character Bryan Fury from the first Tekken, not that you would recognize him as he doesn’t even look like the same guy, and he shows up for a paycheck and disappears after a couple of minutes of worthless story. Even at its basic foundations, Tekken 2 is a terrible film: uninspired and lazy.

It’s not like every straight to DVD action flick needs a great story and great acting to pull off an entertaining film though. Most of them don’t. Even in the execution though, Tekken 2 feels utterly tired and insipid. Director Wych Kaos (whom you might know as the director of the eye-gouging bad Ballistic: Ecks Vs Sever) has no idea how to pace the film or give it the depth needed to even begin to sell its terrible script. The fight choreography might be just a tad better than the first film, but the lacking action in the finale, the disappointing match between Daniels and Kosugi, and the super serious tone of the film make sure that none of the action is enjoyable. I didn’t even have fun during this movie.

He's fighting in a generic set with generic baddies. Yawn.
As an avid Tekken and action film fan, I can’t recommend Tekken 2 to ANYONE. At least the first film had the sad ability to be unintentionally entertaining with its ridiculous concepts and silly fight sequences. Tekken 2 is a sad excuse for an action film that has no character work, a nonsensical and poorly structured script, and action that has no meaning or depth. Even if you remotely liked the first film, I will just throw it out there to skip this one. It’s not worth the time or effort.

Written By Matt Reifschneider

Falcon Rising (2014)

Director: Ernie Barbarash
Notable Cast: Michael Jai White, Neal McDonough, Laila Ali, Lateef Crowder, Millie Ruperto, Jimmy Navarro, Masashi Odate

“God has nothing to do with this. You made your own choices.”

Michael Jai White has been dealing with TV and other bit acting parts for far too long. They’ve tried to give him franchises (Black Dynamite, Spawn) but continually they get shoved onto the back burner by studios. Luckily, someone seems to have their head on straight by attempting to give him one more franchise, but this time it’s a low budget old school actioner that wouldn’t require gimmicks or big bank rolls to get going. This film is Falcon Rising. While it’s not going to be winning any awards for its relatively basic plot line and old school 80s concepts, Falcon Rising is quite the entertaining flick hinged on some solid action set pieces that will have action fans clamoring for more.

John Chapman (Michael Jai White) can’t seem to cope with heading back to civilian life after his experiences in war. He struggles with purpose in his life and even though his sister (Laila Ali) tries to help, she’s so busy helping in the favelas of Brazil to always be there. When she is brutally attacked and left in a coma though, John takes it onto his shoulders to head down there and find out just who and why she was attacked. With the help of an old friend in the government (McDonough) he might just uncover a larger conspiracy at play.

"I'm here for some pain medication."
There can be a beauty to low budget straight to home video action films like Falcon Rising. Sure the budget obviously hurts the film in a lot of ways, particularly a film that tries to be as ambitious as this one, but the creativity in play with the execution and old school approach to its action lends itself to playing to its audience with a fair amount of confidence. At the foundation, sure the script is a bit cliché with Chapman looking to uncover what happened and having to essentially kick his ass to the top and a bit too much thought into the ‘conspiracy’ will unveil quite a few plot holes, but the approach is heartfelt and ultimately charismatic if that counts for anything.

Perhaps the biggest issue that Falcon Rising faces is just how serious it takes itself. It touches on a lot of bigger issues with its in-the-basics plot including police corruption, poverty, drug influence, and PTSD. At times the film wants to be a little bit First Blood and it doesn’t quite have the cast or script to pull it off. Chapman is a pretty strong character to build a franchise on (as indicated by its open ending and even the title Falcon Rising) and while it lacks some of the fun that Michael Jai White usually brings to these kind of films – the latter half gets much better and even has him dropping a few one liners – this debut for the character is a great kick off for all intensive purposes.

Ass kicking brought you by the letter "O" - as in, "Oh, shit."
As for the action, Falcon Rising delivers that in spades on all fronts. Director Ernie Barbarash is going to be one of those directors to be ranked up there with Florentine as one of the greats of underground action cinema (both Assassination Games and 6 Bullets rock hard) and the combination of hand to hand combat and gun work is pretty top notch for a low budget actioner. I do wish that Michael Jai White would have gone one on one a bit longer with Lateef Crowder (who played in both Undisputed 3 and Tekken as a highlight for throw-away roles), but the finale is still a blast.

Falcon Rising is not a perfect film and its writing can be a bit of a burden on all of the great aspects of the film, but the combination of Michael Jai White’s screen charisma, the action direction of Barbarash, and a focus on building a franchise make it one of the gems in action for the year. It’s not a film for everyone, but action fans will delight in all of its old school fist and gun glory. Here’s to hoping for a long lasting series!

Written By Matt Reifschneider