Friday, April 17, 2015

Temple of the Red Lotus (1965)

Director: Hsu Cheng Hung
Notable Cast: Jimmy Wang Yu, Ivy Ling Po, Lo Lieh, Chin Ping

While my love for the Shaw Brothers filmography developed through the studios’ 70s and 80s classic hand to hand combat films, time and availability has grown my appreciation for what the studio had to offer in various genres and styles – but the earlier 60s martial arts films still tend to feel a bit unconfident in many ways. This wavering dedication to a style shows up heavily in Temple of the Red Lotus. Despite some solid attempts at narrative and the sheer star power of both Jimmy Wang Yu and Lo Lieh, the film finds itself wandering a bit too much and failing to provide the entertainment needed to sell it’s epic story.

Wu (Jimmy Wang Yu) has set out on his own. He’s off to find the people that killed his parents and his limited training may not be enough to pull it off. So he heads to the house of some old family friends – where he has been signed off to wed the daughter since he was a kid. Too bad a chance encounter with some bandits and the members of the Red Lotus Temple set him on a collision course with danger.

Excuse me?
Like many of the early Shaw films, Temple of the Red Lotus is heavily influenced by the dramatic stage design. There is music where the lyrics of the songs reflect inner turmoil of characters or express to the audience what is occurring to keep the story moving, the plot moves in broad stroke manners, and the structure is very defined. In a way, this allows the film to be fairly easy to consume and understandable for the audience, but it’s rarely as satisfying on film as it might have been. The plot itself is of the wuxia style (wandering swordsman, blah blah blah) and the focus of the film is firmly rooted in a family dynamic with a big heaping side of romantic flavoring. So expect that much going into the film – that there is a lot more crying and pleading then what I was used to in a martial arts film.

Don't be shy.
The epic story is decent enough and it builds a solid mystery about who’s the real bad guy that kept the pace moving. Outside of its random ending (it’s obvious this was the first part of a series and it’s sudden end without any resolution for any of the main plot points is utterly frustrating), it plays at a solid pace. Unfortunately, the film tends to be very predictable in this manner. While the concept is that our hero, played against his normally quiet and swift badassness by Jimmy Wang Yu, has a huge character arc where he learns to trust his new family and quit being a somewhat frail and frantic man, the rest of the film fails to utilize a lot of the secondary characters. Sure, his wife to be gets some nice character beats in the second half, but everyone else is left to wither away. The villains come and go randomly, her family is filled with characters that get a handful of lines but nothing of huge substance, there’s a random superhero like lady in a bright red outfit, and Lo Lieh is stuck playing out the tough friend/wanna be lover of our heroine who pines for most of the movie only to occasionally pop up to kill a few people here and there. The film either needed to cut some of the characters or bulk up a bit on their screen time. It does neither.

Yet, Temple of the Red Lotus shifts its plot away from the action. This move might be a blessing in disguise as the sword fighting is kind of clunky and lacking the usual Shaw Brothers choreography that audiences associate with the brand. The finale has some fun moments in it as we see Jimmy Wang Yu start to come out of his shell as a character, but getting there is somewhat…well, boring. Even the structure of having the newlyweds battle their way through stages to leave the house is more about them crying and begging to be let go instead of earning their way with their talents as a sword slashing duo. At one point I may have yelled at the screen, "Well gee, if you would quit crying for 30 seconds and kill somebody then you might feel better about yourself." It's not one of my better moments as a film audience.

I love subtitles.
All in all, Temple of the Red Lotus might have been a decent wuxia film if they had done quite a bit of trimming to the script, actually gave it an ending where it felt like something was finished, and added in more substance to the fights. In it’s current state, the film is predictable, meandering in its sense of urgency, and ultimately boring.

Let’s just say I’m not wholly looking forward to seeing the sequel The Twin Swords. Hopefully, it finishes and improves on what this one has to offer.

Written By Matt Reifschneider

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Samaritan Zatoichi (1968)

Director: Kenji Misumi
Notable Cast: Shintaro Katsu, Yoshiko Mita, Makoto Sato, Ko Nishimura, Takuya Fujioka, Yasuhiro Minakami, Chocho Miyako, Akira Shimizu

When it comes to watching Zatoichi films, director Kenji Misumi is rarely a man that allows his entry to fall towards the bottom of the franchise. For the nineteenth entry into the long running blind swordsman series Samaritan Zatoichi, Misumi finds himself helming one of the most generic entries into the series. Luckily, he’s at the helm and he gives the film a lot more depth then it has in its script. Otherwise this film easily could have been the worst of the franchise for its misuse of humor, predictable plot, and boring characters.

Zatoichi (Shintaro Katsu) looks to find some money for his endless meandering and ends up doing a local yakuza boss a favor. A young man owes a lot of money and in a drunken stupor ends up at the sharp end of Zatoichi’s cane. His sister, who shows up with the money, is taken to work in the boss’ brothel. This injustice does not go unseen by the blind swordsman and he vows to protect the woman at all costs to right his wrong.

Watch your back...err...something.
The Zatoichi franchise has more than eagerly established a formula that it, more or less, maintains with fierce regularity. So it’s not all that surprising that Samaritan Zatoichi finds itself heavily entrenched in this same structure. This time around though it feels much less like a comfortable formula and more like an uninspired rut. Not only does the film feel like it’s patched pieces of other stronger films (and other films that are still worse than this like Zatoichi’s Flashing Sword, so there’s that), but the tonality is patchy too. The film starts off on a strong note with a well shot stand off against the young man in his little house that’s thick with atmosphere – but quickly after that, the film loses a lot of that feel for the sake of building a film that’s more fun. The humor, including a rather awkward sequence where Zatoichi is rolled in a rug and is going to be thrown into a river, is almost slapstick in nature and the it’s obvious that Misumi struggles a bit in weaving that into the more serious plot. A potentially tense sequence where Zatoichi must ride a horse to catch some fleeing bandits is played for laughs instead of tension and it sputters out, despite its potential. So it’s not that Samaritan Zatoichi is horrendously all over the place, but it’s inconsistent enough to keep the viewer from truly engaging into the story.

Outside of the fact that we’ve seen this plot routine before a plethora of times at this point, Samaritan Zatoichi still fails to really inspire a lot of dedication from its audience – let alone its fan base. The characters seem redundant and even the continued nuance and build of Katsu as our hero can’t save the film from feeling ‘meh’ with its lackluster characters. The action is standard and the humor (as mentioned) is forced and inconsistent. Misumi still crafts a shot like a pro and there are these bright shining moments of punch – including a scene where the young woman tries to kill Zatoichi in a fit of sad rage, but the rest is simply mediocre at best.

Death to Zatoichi!
Thus far in the Zatoichi series I have only found myself disappointed in the results a handful of times and Samaritan Zatoichi is one of those. Considering Misumi is the director on this one, it’s easily more disappointing then expected even with its strong moments. Fans might find it decent enough to sit through and if you are unfamiliar with the earlier films in the franchise then it might seem fun and well written, but as a whole it’s just too formulaic with not enough unique aspects to sell itself.

Written By Matt Reifschneider

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

My Life Directed by Nicolas Winding Refn (2015)

Director: Liv Corfixen

I think this a nice short film, directed by Liv Corfixen, whom is the lovely bride to Mr. Refn. Now, I will warn that I am a big fan of Refn, and I am only shy Pusher 2 and 3 of seeing all of his films, and genuinely enjoying all of them. I don't feel that I am biased though. I think his weakest film is Bleeder [out of all of them], though I think I prefer it to Fear X. Even then, there was a lot about Fear X I liked. That is for another conversation though, and I've already wasted several lines, including this one, not speaking of the title in which I am here to talk about.

My Life Directed by Nicolas Winding Refn, is a nice, and short and sweet look into Refn's life whilst making a movie, though most of the film is the more intricate little conversations during the offshoot hours, after, or before. I like Refn as a personality, honestly. A lot of directors have this sort of mystic vibe about them, as in you don't see a whole lot of candid moments with them. My favorite filmmaker is Park Chan-wook, but rarely do I see the more everyday life side of him, and honestly I know there are a lot of people that don't care about that side or aspect of their favorite filmmakers or artists in general. I am on the flip-side of that coin of course, and I really dig seeing these little moments or fragments into the lives of these people who I truly admire.

That being said, this is my biggest complaint of the film. I don't feel that there are enough really shining moments [good or bad] that stand out. I also can't say how much footage she had to sift through to get what she got, or if there was even that much to truly feel a need to put into the film. Maybe a lot of the footage she captured just wasn't interesting. There are plenty of moments where Refn does not want to articulate or act on how he is feeling or open up for the cameras. In a way, he feels a little guarded that there is a camera on him this entire process.

I've also heard people say they wish this would've just been an extra feature on the home media release of Only God Forgives, and while I get that, I also understand that this was Liv's project. She wasn't obliged by a company or contractor to come in with a tiny crew and make a "behind the scenes" doc to be included as an extra feature. This was her, with her own camera, doing a project for herself. For that reason, I respect her choosing to release this later. And honestly, it probably wasn't even ready or remotely close to being ready for the release of Only God Forgives. I'm sure, as I mentioned earlier, that she had tons of footage to go through, as I see her possibly having the camera there almost at all times.

I don't think there is a ton to say about this film, other than if you are interested in Refn, or enjoy him as a filmmaker, then of course this is most definitely worth checking out. I think my biggest fault with it is its length. The film is not even a full hour (shy a couple of minutes) and I feel it honestly could've been a bit longer. Of course that's subjective, and you could argue with me. In the end, I truly enjoyed my hour with the Refn family (plus the humorous Gosling moments), and I patiently await to see where Nicolas takes me next.

Written By Josh Parmer

Sunday, April 5, 2015

Enter the Dangerous Mind (2015)

Directors: Youssef Delara, Victor Teran

Notable Cast: Jake Hoffman, Nikki Reed, Thomas Dekker, Scott Bakula, Jason Priestley

Very few psychological thrillers find the right balance between commercial viability and edgy cleverness to rise above being mediocre films. For Enter the Dangerous Mind, the results come off as just that – mediocre. There are plenty of themes and intriguing topics of potential to be found in this nifty independent film, but it mostly sacrifices them for some predictable plot twists and some missed attempts at thoughtful themes.

Jim (Hoffman) is at a constant battle with his half brother (Dekker). His brother endless berates and nags him about his life and it pushes him to find sanctuary in his music, both writing and mixing. When he meets a beautiful social worker Wendy (Reed), he decides to try to take power of his life and move on a new path…but quickly he finds himself spiraling out of control.

Enter the Dangerous Mind, for a rather low budget indie film, has some pretty solid production values. Directors Youssef Delara and Victor Teran know how to shoot a film. Using the dubstep elements of the characters sanctuary, they blend some intriguing visuals into the mix with some strong sound design. At times the film touches on an almost psychedelic nature, particularly Jim’s conversations with his brother which start off almost brashly humorous before growing darker and more devious, and the film builds a slow – but solid – first act to launch into some interesting thematic ideas. It crafts a basis for the thriller elements of acts two and three nicely.

However, there are two major faults to Enter the Dangerous Mind that almost utterly unbalance the entire film. Firstly, the film lacks an empathetic nature for our main protagonist Jim. Jim suffers from mental illness in the film and between the choices of our directors and the performance of Jake Hoffman, the sense of him being a victim is completely washed away by the focus that he is already a ticking time bomb. This sort of viewpoint that ‘everyone with mental illness is a violent outburst waiting to happen’ breeds its own sort of idiocy to the proceedings. Even worse still, the film approaches this exact subject by having the young social worker Wendy study this issue to only throw it out the window by brushing it over for the sake of the thriller elements. The potential for a smart movie is outweighed by the film’s need to water down the thoughtful undertones into a more easily consumable product. It leaves Enter the Dangerous Mind feeling almost offensive in its reluctance (or straight out failure) to show Jim as empathetic instead of psychotic.

Secondly, Enter the Dangerous Mind misses out on being clever in many of its twists and turns. Throughout the film we are shown blips and pieces of a traumatic experience that fuels Jim’s mental issues and it allows the third act to dive into a sort of detective game for one of the secondary characters (played with honesty by Scott Bakula). At this point though, the narrative gets jumbled and the film refuses to either go edgier with its twists or even to throw in a twist at all. It feels like a huge twist is coming at the end…but it never comes to fruition. Instead, the final act tends to focus on resulting collapse of Jim and Wendy – which leads to an utterly predictable conclusion.

Can you hear it?
If anything, Enter the Dangerous Mind fails to capitalize on its fringing artistic and thoughtful approaches and it culminates with the film being another mediocre psychological thriller. Some of the performances are solid, Bakula steals the show, and the directors show some intriguing artistic flourishes in their visuals and how they use their sound cues, but the focuses and execution of characters is so drastically flawed that most of those good things are lost in the sea of mediocrity. Enter the Dangerous Mind shows a bit of potential. It’s just not enough to warrant too much excitement for the rest of the film.

Written By Matt Reifschneider

Furious 7 (2015)

Director: James Wan

Notable Cast: Vin Diesel, Paul Walker, Michelle Rodriguez, Jason Statham, Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson, Jordana Brewster, Ludacris, Tyrese Gibson, Kurt Russell, Nathalie Emmanuel, Tony Jaa, Ronda Rousey, Djimon Hounsou, Lucas Black, Luke Evans

Also known as: Furious Seven, Fast & Furious 7

With the seemingly unstoppable train of hype and curiosity that resulted from the sudden and tragic death of Paul Walker, it was only decently obvious that Furious Seven (yes, that is the actual title on the film and this is what I will be referring to it as) would hit hard in theaters. With the numbers rolling in for a massive opening weekend already, it’s hard to argue that this film, at least in some form, doesn’t deserve this kind of attention. For the seventh film in the franchise, Furious Seven retains just as much energy, heart, humor, and high octane action as the previous two films and despite some very shocking set backs – really keeps things moving in the right direction. It’s still not quite as good as Fast Five, but Furious Seven hits all the right marks for what is sure to be one of the most entertaining film experiences you’re likely to have all year.

Because why not?
Life is settling down for the Toretto family. Dom (Diesel) and Letty (Rodriguez) are working their issues out since her return and Brian (Walker) and Mia (Brewster) are getting into the groove of family life with their son Jack. That is until a new Deckland Shaw (Statham) kills Han and sends a bomb to kill the rest of the Toretto clan. Now it’s up to Dom and the gang to find Shaw before he finds them and with the help of a secret program God’s Eye and a black ops gig from Mr. Nobody (Russell), they have limited time to do it.

Continuing on in the same fashion as Five and 6, Furious Seven impresses by making a film that is certainly part of a franchise (character and plot wise), but stands on its own two feet as a massive film. Within the narrative, Seven tends to be a little sporadic as it blends two plot lines, Shaw versus Toretto and the God’s Eye heist, into a globe hopping adventure that tends to have to occasionally force scene changes. Oh wait, you gave the program to your friend in Abu Dhabi? Guess we go there to blow things up! You mean the hacker is being escorted by a warload in the mountains? Let’s parachute cars in there! Luckily, James Wan, new to the franchise as director and new to the genre as a whole, steps right into Justin Lin’s shoes and seems pretty comfortable in understanding how this franchise should – and needs – to work. He might even shoot the fight sequences a smidgeon better. Seven throws in all the necessary moments needed for a Fast & Furious flick (including more car racing and racing culture that is starting to feel a bit out of place in the action films) so fans will be excited to see repeated characters and jokes that still work.

"Cars don't fly, Dom!"
Truthfully though, the Fast & Furious franchise has never been one for great, logistical storytelling. This franchise has bloomed into a full on adrenaline pumping punch to the face and Seven does just that. Whether it’s the spectacle of seeing ‘skydriving,’ having Statham act as a sort of evil British Kool-Aid man and bursting into every locale with guns blazing, or the ridiculously complex ‘battle of Los Angeles’ in the finale – which features two fist fights, drone warfare, and The Rock taking on a military helicopter mano y mano, then it’s here. It might not quite have the spectacle of the airport finale of 6 or the Rio heist of Five, but even the Abu Dhabi sequence (which features a “flying” car that careens through THREE skyscrapers) attempts to go for the gold. The entertainment and style of watching a team of charismatic ‘family members’ continually destroy cities is infectious.

Yet with all of the bullets, explosions, and people being hurled through glass, it’s the ensemble feature of Seven that wins for having the most heart. Snicker if you want as Diesel continues to grumble growl about family or the continued presence of gimmick secondary characters, this film has an 8-cylinder heart that oozes its charm into every aspect. Sure, Statham plays one of two villains in the film (the other is a warloard played by Djimon Hounsou) and The Rock is sidelined for most of the action, but boy oh boy do they make every minute of their screen time worth it. Statham’s entrance into the film is something of legend. Kurt Russell shows up to simply devour scenes as the charming government black ops commander Mr. Nobody and even both Tony Jaa and Ronda Rousey get to make the most of their fight-oriented limited screen time. They utilize Jaa too much greater effect than Taslim received in 6 and it’s these kind of learning curves shows that the franchise is still perfecting itself. Hell, even if a character like Hector (popping up for his first time since the first film) can get a smile out of the face of an audience, then this film is doing something right.

Alas, there is an elephant in the room though and that’s how Furious Seven has to cope with death of Paul Walker in mid shoot. To say that this film handles it in the most heart felt manner – and shockingly artistic way in the final ten minutes – is an understatement to the work of the cast and crew. The moments of CGI Brian can be a bit obvious and the editing of some early scenes and a second fight with Tony Jaa is also a bit heavy handed to cover up body doubles, but instead of looking for these things straight out – the film reminds us that it’s about the heart that goes with these efforts and not the results themselves that make this ‘one last ride’ worth it. If the crying people in the theater were any indication, Seven handles this aspect so fittingly that it deserves its own award for overcoming such an obstacle.

Call it big. Call it dumb. Call it what it is. Furious Seven is the kind of film that shows that no matter what production problems are present or even how patchy a script can be, that a film can be both entertaining and heartfelt with the right intentions. This film knows exactly what it is, what it’s fan base wants, and delivers on all accounts. Furious Seven might crush the box office this weekend with its hype and the curiosity of an audience looking to see if the entry can be pulled off through it’s issues, but it’s going to remain one of the better action films of the year by remaining true to what it is. If the seventh entry of this franchise can remain this much fun, then I’m already prepared to purchase tickets for the next seven entries.

R.I.P. Paul Walker. Thanks for the cinematic memories.

Written By Matt Reifschneider

Thursday, April 2, 2015

Vengeance of an Assassin (2015)

Director: Panna Rittikrai
Notable Cast: Dan Chupong, Nathawut Boonrubsub, Ping Lumpraploeng, Nisachon Tuamsungnoen

The Thai action scene, which exploded in the late 90s and early 00s with the likes of Born to Fight and Ong Bak, owes a great deal of its success to Panna Rittikrai – a director and fight choreographer with a true knack for fun and brutal action. So that fact, combined with the news of his passing last year, has left some intriguing expectations for his final directorial effort Vengeance of an Assassin - expectations that probably won’t be met by harsher critics and expectations that will leave this film revered by others simply as the last of an era. In a way, the film is both more of what the audience wants and something unique as it perfectly culminates what Rittikrai was all about. It showcases some interesting new ground for the Thai scene and leaves us wondering what he might have done next if he had remained with us.

For Than (Nathawut Boonrubsub) and Thee (Dan Chupong), the murder of their parents has hung over their lives like a dark cloud since they were children. Raised by their mechanic uncle (Ping Lumpraploeng), they have always looked for answers but rarely found any. When  Thee leaves and becomes a hitman for hire, he uncovers a plan to set him up as the fall man for a young woman (Nisachon Tuamsungnoen)…by the same people that killed his parents.

Dan Chupong strutting his acting ability.
At its core, Vengeance of an Assassin is ‘classic’ Thai action through and through. I say ‘classic’ in quotations because this means it comes with both the benefits and the problems of most Thai films. Like most of Rittikrai’s other films, Vengeance sports a ridiculous amount of action and very little in the way of cohesive storytelling. Vengeance starts off building this solid ‘family’ dynamic, but quickly it finds itself sort of just yabbering at the screen. I’m not sure if yabbering is a word, but it certainly fits here. The acting is spastic and the character arcs are forced and awkward – a combination that can be pretty gnarly to get through. There is enough here to get the audience through, but it’s pretty rough sailing – particularly when they add in a random romantic subplot and a botched assassination that really has no legs to stand on. The kicker of this laki of narrative is…well, if you’ve seen any of his other films (or most any Thai film crafted under his influence) then you know exactly what to expect, so it’s not all that disappointing. It’s simply par for the course.

Interestingly enough, Vengeance of an Assassin actually represents something of new ground for director Rittikrai on top of its ‘classic’ Thai action formula. There is definitely a new ‘gun fu’ Hong Kong inspired spin to the story. The John Woo style of bullet ballets and duel wielding guns mixes remarkably well with the Thai action formula here and the culmination of fist n’ feet with guns n’ explosions certainly showcases an interesting direction for the film to take. Rittikrai throws in a couple of ‘uncut’ camera shots of gun fights (think of the hospital scene in Hard Boiled done on a third of the budget) which come out as impressive for film overall. Outside of a fun, but incredibly awkward sequence with one of the most unintentionally hilarious CGI train rides – and crashes – in film history, the action here is awesome through and through. The fights are brutal and well structured, the stunts are top notch, and the gunplay is remarkably energetic.

Walking on broken glass? Who do you think broke that damn glass?
In the end though, the poorly structured narrative and awkward characters cannot be completely erased by the extensive and energetic action on display. It works at times, including a rather silly but enigmatically appealing opening soccer match in a garage that features more face kicks then Hollywood garnered all of last year, but it doesn’t sell the entire film. Action fans, however, will want to immediately purchase this film as Rittikrai never ceases to pull away from the brutal muay thai fighting and stunt work that made his career legendary and even adds a bit of John Woo gun fu into the mix for shits and giggles. This combination in itself sets Vengeance of an Assassin on a whole new level for Thai action – a statement that should have action fans drooling.

Written By Matt Reifschneider

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