Thursday, August 27, 2015

Zatoichi Goes to the Fire Festival (1970)

Director: Kenji Misumi
Notable Cast: Shintaro Katsu, Tatsuya Nakadai, Reiko Ohara, Masayuki Mori, Peter, Ko Mishimura, Ryunosuke Kaneda

If you go back through the reviews for the previous twenty films in the Zatoichi franchise, you’re likely to find a theme: these films adhere fairly strictly to a formula. For some of the films it’s a detriment, but for others it allows the film to add smaller nuances and style on top of the foundation. In the case of the previous film, Zatoichi Meets Yojimbo, it was a blessing. This is what makes Zatoichi Goes to the Fire Festival one of the most unique, fascinating, and often perplexing entries into the series. Essentially, the formula goes out the window. In its place is a film that’s a loosely threaded together series of ‘occurrences’ for our blind swordsman hero. Some that work and some that don’t. It makes it one of the more ambitious entries, but far from the best.

Zatoichi (Shintaro Katsu) desperately wants to do good in his life. When a good deed gone wrong gets a maniacal swordsman (Tatsuya Nakadai) on his trail, he finds himself pushing forward in a different manner. This also puts him at odds with a very powerful yakuza boss (Masayuki Mori) who respects Zatoichi, but will do anything to make sure he doesn’t interfere with any of his future plans. Also there is some stories where Zatoichi falls in love, saves a woman from sexual servitude, and helps a young man find a way to be a true man. Whatever.

Gardening takes a dark turn.
The biggest hurdle to overcome in Zatoichi Goes to the Fire Festival is the sort of stream of consciousness flow that the narrative contains. It’s not unusual for the film to start off in one direction, take a wicked left turn and go another direction, only to take a wicked right turn and come back to the original path. There is a slew of secondary characters that litter its story (most of which are irrelevant, but fun) and the film has no qualms in taking rapid shifts of tone at a moment’s notice. A bath house assassination attempt, for example, goes from suspenseful to slapstick comedy to shockingly violent to silent – all in one sequence. The humor throughout many of these pieces is a bit hit or miss (an issue that has recently hindered many other films in the franchise) and there are some subplots that simply needed to be cut out for the sake of deepening other ones. An entire portion of the film is dedicated to Zatoichi helping a young man, who tries to lay on the sexy moves on our hero at one point, learn “to be a man.” While it leads to some of the better dialogue that the film has to offer about Zatoichi’s character, it’s unneeded weight on a film that desperately needed to add time to the romantic subplot that actually plays a role on the main story.

A villainous attack.
The film is essentially carried by the visual storytelling of director Kenji Misumi. His last film in this franchise was a massive disappointment and his final one here certainly showcases a man with a knack for strong visuals – even if the rest of the film tends to be more wishy-washy than normal. There are dozens of iconic moments littered throughout the film, a scene where Zatoichi buries a young woman, the previously mentioned bath house fight ends with a great blood in the water piece, and the finale is outright insane with its extras and the lake of fire that erupts, but the film rarely capitalizes on some of the serious moments of subtle character work that Katsu and the rest of his cast bring to the table. The two villains of the film are both fascinating characters in their own right, but the film spends so much time showing Zatoichi dodge horse piss and other random things that it misses out on some of those opportunities to strike when the iron is hot.

Bath time was always tough.
All in all though, Zatoichi Goes to the Fire Festival is a pretty entertaining entry even if the film is significantly flawed. It’s easy to see why fans tend to love it for its quirky moments and daft plotting. However, compared to the more serious and hard hitting emotional entries of this franchise, this one falls short. It’s just too scattered and uneven to work the magic elements that are so obviously pieced throughout the whole film. If viewers are aware of its inconsistencies, it’s a film easy to forgive due to its charm and outlandishness. Just make sure you go into it with the right mindset.

Written By Matt Reifschneider

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation (2015)

Director: Christopher McQuarrie
Notable Cast: Tom Cruise, Simon Pegg, Jeremy Renner, Ving Rhames, Rebecca Ferguson, Sean Harris, Simon McBurney

It’s not very often that the fifth entry into a major franchise is one of the best ones (in the case of Fast Five it was and still is the best one), so walking out of Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation I couldn’t help but feel pretty satisfied. While I still wouldn’t consider it the best of the franchise, that accolade still remains with JJ Abrams third entry, Rogue Nation delivers another round of energetic and outrageous spy action…albeit with a bit more humor and a bit more of a classic espionage approach to the entire thing. The results are another fun – and surprisingly sound – adventure flick that will appeal to longtime fans as well as new ones.

Ethan Hunt (Cruise) is onto something big. The Syndicate. A group of rogue agents from all over the world trained to create disaster and chaos as efficiently as the IMF can stop it. Unfortunately, the CIA and its director (Baldwin) see the IMF as a loose cannon themselves and they pull the plug. So it’s up to Hunt, with a little help from his friends, to finally uncover the biggest anti-spy organization this side of Spectre.

Over the shoulder! No wait, don't fire...that shit is LOUD!
Love him or hate him, Tom Cruise has been on a roll lately with his films. Whether it’s an old school thriller like Jack Reacher or the bonkers time jumping science fiction of Edge of Tomorrow, his last handful of films have been impressively consistent in quality. You can certainly add Rogue Nation to that list. Oddly enough, there is another element that threads through all of the mentioned films outside of the screen charm and stunt performin’ draw of Tom Cruise – and that’s writer/director Christopher McQuarrie. If you take the entertaining action and humor of Edge of Tomorrow and inject it with some of the classic action elements of Jack Reacher, that’s the balance you get in Rogue Nation. It’s a very fun way to go about it and it makes this film feel a bit refreshing after the sheer ridiculousness of the last one.

When it comes to hitting all of the Mission: Impossible elements, Rogue Nation does so in spades. Elaborate theft schemes? Try on an underwater computer card transfer that will have you holding your breath along with Hunt. Rag tag team of IMF agents that have to go rogue to stop a world ending disaster? Hasn’t every film had that? Try death defying stunts like Tom Cruise hanging off of a plane or skipping his way up a pole in handcuffs. At this point, if you stick to the bread and butter of what made this franchise so enjoyable to begin with, it’s hard to go too wrong. The film is brimming with fun and exciting action sequences and plenty of twists and turns along the way. At this point it’s even fun at guessing just when the mask reveal is going to happen. Long time M:I fans are definitely going to find things to love about this film.

The wheels on the cycle go boom, boom, boom.
To add to the fun, director Christopher McQuarrie adds a bit of old school spy thrills. The previous three films have sacrificed a bit of the actual “espionage” for the sake of entertaining action (which isn’t a dig at those films because it works), but Rogue Nation adds in just enough fun twists and turns to make it feel a bit refreshing. While the entire “is she with the good guys or with the bad guys” element for Ferguson does seem a bit cliché, she sells it in Rogue Nation and adds a bit of much needed feminine screen power to a franchise known for just leap frogging around it. McQuarrie also has a knack for using darkness and light in his visuals to add old school flair to the film. The finale is in the darkened allies of London and he uses it to some craft some great atmosphere. The previously mentioned Ferguson gets a stellar knife fight at this moment that might be one of the highlights of the entire franchise – despite not being an over the top stunt.

Once again, the biggest issue that this film has to contend with is the lacking presence of a strong villain. It’s somewhat avoided here, in a similar manner to the first one, by having the plot be the biggest antagonist for our heroes, but it’s still an issue. Sean Harris desperately attempts to make his screen time foreboding and creepy with his performance, but never once was I wholly convinced that he was a true competitor to Cruise’s Hunt – whom at this point is damn near god-like in his ability to survive anything. Along these lines, the added screen time for Simon Pegg was a huge crowd pleaser for the audience around me, but his role seemed significantly catered for that exact reason. It’s not a huge detriment for the film (he’s funny, so there’s that) but there were times when it felt like it could have been fleshed out a bit more instead of the “he’s my friend!” motive.

So dark. So brooding.
Despite some hiccups here and there in the ridiculous plot and some of the lacking character depth, Rogue Nation remains a massively entertaining summer blockbuster worthy of the time of its audience. Long time Mission: Impossible fans are going to love the old school elements that McQuarrie slides in and the newer fans are going to eat up the outrageous stunts and silly humorous banter of the IMF team. It still falls a bit short of Mission: Impossible III, but I’ll be damned if this film doesn’t give it a run for its money.

Written By Matt Reifschneider

Sunday, August 23, 2015

Sinister 2 (2015)

Director: Ciaran Foy
Notable Cast: James Ransone, Shannyn Sossamon, Robert Daniel Sloan, Dartanian Sloan, Lea Coco

It’s been three years since the release of the extremely well executed and atmospheric Sinister in theaters and the Blum House horror machine rolls on with the sequel, Sinister 2. While the initial trailers seemed spooky enough, the missing component of director Scott Derrickson was going to be a huge hurdle for this film to overcome, but I felt confident that as long as the film kept the right combination of atmosphere and mystery to the mix that this film could succeed. Unfortunately, atmosphere and mystery are the two things that Sinister 2 does NOT carry over from the original. In their place are a generic film filled with awkward plot progressions and uninteresting characters that, in its defense, tries to add in some decent pieces, but ultimately fails at damn near every turn. One more potential franchise down the quality toilet.

Deputy So-and-So (Ransone) is now an ex-deputy after the events of the first film, but that hasn’t stopped him from trying to piece together the mystery of his friend’s death at the hands of the deity Bughuul. This leads him to a new house where a young mother (Sossamon) is hiding with her two boys (the Sloans) from her abusive husband (Coco). Now it’s up to him to put together how Bughuul works and save the family before one of the boys becomes a slave to the ‘child eater’ and kills them all.

Even the kid is yawning...
If there is one word that can be used to describe Sinister 2, it would be ‘awkward.’ You’re going to read that word again and again throughout this review because, quite simply, this film is a perfect example of it. Oddly enough, there are some intriguing things and focuses used in Sinister 2 that might have crafted a decent sequel and horror film. I love the idea that the audience gets to experience the psychological spiral of what happens to a child once they are chosen by Bughuul and the film even hints at the fact that there are multiple threads of these deaths that happen all around the world and it’s not just the single thread that was being followed in the first film. These ideas are sound and, in many ways, could have produced a decent flick.

Sinister 2, however, is not that film. The first film thrived on the atmospheric visuals and audio to deliver its scares and sense of dread. Neither of those things are strong enough in this film to carry it. It tries to replicate many of the elements that worked like ghostly children, the sequence of home movies within the movie, and the looming presence of Bughuul (whom thankfully has not become a slasher killer…yet), but none of it works. The pacing is awkward as the two stories mesh together in forced ways with an odd romantic thread that just sits so wrong and the heavy handed and over the top approach to the child custody battle makes little or no sense. The abusive husband is a hilariously over the top asshole and it just seals the deal. It doesn’t help that our protagonists are not all that interesting, despite some fun performances from them. Ransone stole a few scenes in the first film in what should have been a plot progression role, but his character cannot hold an entire film. He seems to spout exposition awkwardly and his chemistry onscreen with the others doesn’t work like it needs to. All in all, the film’s plot and core just don’t flow.

So what if the plot is forceful and awkward, we still have plenty of scares, right? Wrong. Sinister 2 tries to recreate a lot of what worked in the first film (like everything else), but without the foundations of the mystery and characters that connect with the audience it stumbles at every turn. Bughuul remains more of a presence in the film, but his few moments of screen time feel like yawn inducing rehash and the expansion of the ghost children tends to feel at odds with what we were presented with in the first film - I was under the impression that they were terrified of him, not his little scare slaves. Even the ‘home movies,’ which progressively made the first one so frightening and culminated in one of the most delightfully well executed jump scares in the last twenty years, are horrendously jammed into this film and result in a lot of unintentional laughter. In particular, there is one that involves alligators that had the theatrical audience laughing as a whole. Not something you want to hear in a horror movie meant to scare.

Sinister 2 is simply an awkward film experience that tries to tread new ground while remaining true to the elements that worked the first time around. The execution is not there. It’s awkward to sit through, some of it doesn’t make sense, and the scares are non-existent. There is a lot of potential in this franchise, but Sinister 2 has no idea how to handle it.

Written By Matt Reifschneider