Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Victim, The (1980)

Director: Sammo Hung
Noteable Cast: Bryan Leung, Sammo Hung, Chang Yi, Fanny Wang, Wilson Tong, Fat Chung, Billy Chan

While Sammo Hung has remained a staple of my martial arts and kung fu diet throughout my life as a fan, I had never participated in The Victim. A regularly mentioned fan favorite, The Victim combines the onscreen talents of Hung with Beardy (Bryan Leung) in a tale of deceit and love-on-the-run that features some of the fastest kung fu choreography that I have ever seen in my life. It’s a tricky little film, as the plot tends to take some wicked twists and turns throughout and it piles on the kung fu with just a pinch of humor. It’s easy to see why it’s a fan favorite and handedly leaps up to be one of my own favorites.

Chan-Wing (Sammo Hung) is a wandering martial artist looking for a worthy teacher to take him to the next level and when he meets the hermit like Chun Yau (Beardy), he finds the teacher he has always wanted. Chun Yau doesn’t particularly want a student as he and his wife try to lay low from his villainous brother Chang Yi (Jo Ying). With secrets hidden at every corner, Chun Yau is going to need Chan-Wing’s help if he is going to stop running.

Being in a kung fu fight is back breaking work.
What makes The Victim work so well is that the film consistently keeps the viewer spinning. The opening third of the film takes a decidedly light hearted approach with Beardy playing the straight man to Sammo Hung’s often ridiculous comedic routine with much of the kung fu sporting a classic Sammo humorous touch. As we begin to delve into Beardy’s character though (who quickly takes the reign as the lead in the film), the film takes a dark streak and twists itself into quite the tragedy featuring some touchy subjects like jealousy, rape, and coercion. Beardy owns in the lead role, portraying the emotional aspects as effectively as he flies through the extensive fight choreography, and he is surrounded by a phenomenal secondary cast. There are some wicked twists to the plot in the third act (No spoilers here, fools!) and needless to say that they work out impressively.

Often enough, kung fu films either massively succeed at storytelling or action. The Victim handles both with ease. In fact, when it comes to the highly complex choreography and fight sequences, The Victim features some of the most ridiculously fast-paced and impressive work I’ve seen from director Sammo Hung. While there is plenty of fighting to be found here, Hung and company keep it quite diverse throughout (again with some humorous pieces in the beginning that gives way to much more intense pieces at the end) and they slowly build to the finale…a finale that is as explosive as I have ever seen from a one on one battle in a kung fu film. If you are looking for a film of flying feet and furious fists…The Victim is the one to watch.

"Do you see that, I mean...oh sorry."
Sammo Hung as a director has crafted some of the biggest martial arts classics and The Victim fully deserves to be added to that list. The combination of thoughtful character storytelling mixed with just a bit of humor and vicious kung fu fight sequences might be some of the best of his career. Riding on the back of a superior performance from Beardy, The Victim is an instant classic and gets my full recommendation.

Written By Matt Reifschneider

Monday, December 15, 2014

Traffickers (2014)

Director: Kim Hong-sun
Notable Cast: Im Chang-jung, Daniel Choi, Oh Dal-soo, Cho Youn-hee, Cho Dal-hwan, Jeong Ji-yoon
Also Known As: The Traffickers

“Dirty your hands a bit and it’s a great world.”

My enthusiasm for Traffickers was more luke warm than anything. The trailer looked decent and knowing just how good the Korean market is for a thriller, I expected a solid film at best. Yet, time and time again, the thrillers that come out of South Korea continue to impress and Traffickers does just that. It takes some time to set up the premise, but the pay off is substantial and the execution is as lofty as ever. This one is truly a gem to find for fans of tension and suspense.

When it comes to smuggling – even in illegal organ transplants – Young-gyu (Im Chang-jung) was one of the best. He’s been somewhat retired for a while now, after a terrible accident leaves one of his crew dead, and life has been anything but easy. When the woman he has fallen in love with needs an organ for her ill father, he decides it’s best to step back into the game…for one last time.

Talk about a thrill ride!
There is a certain expectation I have for Korean thrillers and when Traffickers started off it met, but rarely exceeded those high expectations. The premise of a morally torn black market runner seems legit enough to compound a dramatic thriller on, but the film tended to hit a lot of run-of-the-mill basics in its foundation with it’s semi-romantic subplot, the ‘dead friend’ who pushes our protagonist towards a moral gray area, and – of course – the villainous business partner that forces our hero back into the game with rants about ‘you owe me’ and ‘you were always the best.’ Traffickers did have those grade ‘A’ executions going for it in this first half with Im Chang-jung delivering the torn hero remarkably well and the secondary cast delivering memorable and impactful supporting bits to get the audience hooked just enough to set up the film. The foundation might be a little cliché, but Traffickers sells it with enough charm and strong executions to get it going.

Traffickers then decides that enough is enough with the generic tropes and starts gunning it in the last half. Starting with the tense game of time and poor circumstance that comes with their devious game of body organ transplants on a boat that features some great suspense and fun (perhaps, the dark humor and often violent nature of the concept wouldn’t constitute fun for some) moments, Traffickers really starts cooking. By the time we get just over the hour mark the film hits full speed. Twist after twist after twist, the last forty minutes hits a ravenous frenzy of chases, betrayals, and violence that only the Korean market can pull off as mainstream. This final act is what really earns the film it’s high-grade rating and makes all of the mundane beats of the first act (and most of the second) worth the time and effort.

Operation: operation.
Like many of the other South Korean thrillers that have made their way over to the US in the last handful of years, Traffickers most certainly rides the line of dark violent content with thoughtful human exploration of themes. The execution does the film wonders to set up the phenomenal finale. It may not be as groundbreaking or intense as instant classics like The Chaser, Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, or The Man from Nowhere, but Traffickers does solidify itself to be mentioned in with those films.

Written By Matt Reifschneider

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Legend of Hercules, The (2014)

Director: Renny Harlin
Notable Cast: Kellan Lutz, Gaia Weiss, Scott Adkins, Roxanne McKee, Liam Garrigan, Liam McIntyre

It’s not very often that two theatrically released movies drop about the same subject matter (outside of generic ones like war or a team of mercenaries), but 2014 gave us not one, but two Hercules films. Renny Harlin’s The Legend of Hercules dropped first (beating Brett Ratner’s Hercules by a handful of months or so) and became one of the biggest flops of the year out of the gates. Having just watched the other Hercules flick and having a decent time with it, I decided it was high time to just pull a double header and dive into the terribly reviewed lesser film. Wowza. Even as a fan of bad movies, I had trouble getting through this one. It took me three times in fact. It has some unintentionally entertaining moments here and there, but man, I have to already suggest skipping this one. If that’s all you needed to hear, then feel free to go check out some other reviews on the site right now. If you want to hear why The Legend of Hercules is terrible go ahead and keep reading.

King Amphitryon (Adkins) is kind of an asshole. He’s a vicious king and is generally terrible to those around him. When his wife decides she needs to intervene to bring him down, she makes a deal with Hera to have Zeus’ baby who would, as Greek destiny goes, grow up to kick some butt and take down his step dad. Twenty years later Alcides (Lutz), the son of Zeus, gets a little pissed when his brother steals his girl and his dad decides to send him on a suicide mission. Just like most Greek tragedies, Alcides decides to take the name Hercules and go back and fulfill his destiny.

This film should be called 150. It's a half-assed 300.
There are a lot of issues with The Legend of Hercules. Like, a lot a lot. The biggest problem is that it never rises above being a knock off film. The first third is pure C-grade 300 worship, albeit where director Renny Harlin has no idea how to actually use slow motion outside of random moments. The entire film simply looks like a substandard 300 clone too. The editing and flow of the film are chopped to hell with no coherency and the ridiculously buff likes of Scott Adkins and Kellan Lutz seem to be tanned and oiled to the point where I felt a bit uncomfortable. From there the film kicks into a Gladiator knock off having Lutz have to fight his way back home and to freedom, but it lacks any kind of emotional resonance to sell the concept. Oh, and the slow motion remains in all of its awkward glory. The third act then goes a bit more classic sword and sandals with its Robin Hood meets Braveheart mimicry. Again, the dramatic beats are forced and predictable. Yawn. It’s obvious that Harlin and company wanted so desperately to appeal to all facets of the style that they just jammed them all in and hoped something would stick. None of it does.

To be honest, I quite enjoyed Lutz in Java Heat and felt like he might have big action star appeal in many ways (not that Expendables 3 used ANY of it either.) Here, he tries his best to sell the terrible script and poorly structured characters but he lacks the chemistry with Weiss to sell the romantic plot and the action is so focused on style that it doesn’t allow him to really showcase that either. So he sort of woodenly shambles through. The rest of the cast do the exact same thing. Scott Adkins is the only one who seems to understand how a B-movie should work and eats up his villainous role – at times almost coming off as an intentional spoof of Butler’s character in 300, all in the best ways of course.

"I've done better straight to DVD movies than this."
The Legend of Hercules is a mess of a film. It’s not bad enough to truly be entertainment in that sense with unintentional humor, but it sure as hell isn’t a good movie in any sense of the term. It forces through a patchy script, it’s stitched together on the scraps left behind from the various films that it rips off, and it’s an awkward film in every regard. It only gets its score from a semi-decent fight at the end between Lutz and Adkins. Otherwise it’s a skip film if there ever was one.

Written By Matt Reifschneider

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Die Fighting (2014)

Director: Fabien Garcia
Notable Cast: Fabien Garcia, Laurent Buson, Didier Buson, Jess Allen

The Z Team, who garnered much success from their online mini-movies and various members serving as smaller roles in larger action flicks, have gone ahead and made their first full-length movie on their own. Like their online flicks, their debut feature Die Fighting (also known as The Price of Success) acts more as a highlight reel for the stunt and fight work of the team more than as full film. Granted, the group certainly aim high with the flick in its meta-concept and relentless fighting sequences, but even that can’t make up for some of its flaws.

The Z Team are seeing their success pay off, but a mysterious director wants them to be in his movies. He kidnaps Fabien’s (as himself) girlfriend and holds her hostage so that they must do what he asks, which includes getting them into a lot of problems with gangs, police, and drug dealers. Can they continue to throw themselves in danger’s path to save the damsel in distress…or will they die fighting?

Going Bruce Lee in here.
The idea of a ‘found footage’ action flick isn’t wholly appealing to me initially. Die Fighting makes use of it as best as possible (the twist at the end does explain a few of the inconsistencies of style in the format, but not all of them) and it allows the Z Team to work with a miniscule budget, but even the meta concept of the team being forced to make a movie as they actually make a movie doesn’t make the style work in full. The constant lens whirs and sudden shifts can be annoying and while the found footage spin doesn’t detract from the action, it certainly doesn’t seem realistic enough that all of the hidden cameras are placed in all the right spots for it.

Outside of the stylistic choice, Die Fighting does have a better success record. The acting is not very strong in most any way as the dialogue often feels forced and the relentless pacing makes the film feel more like a real life version of the NES game Double Dragon than a true film. That seems to be the intent of the film though. While it does think itself rather clever in the final twist, the film sticks mostly to what its strengths are – the action. The action here is relentless, diverse, and effective. Outside of a few budget restraints and some amateur decisions from director Fabien Garcia, the action is impressively choreographed and executed. There are gang fights, a SWAT team hide and seek chase piece, gun battles, and  (of course) classic one-on-one hand to hand combat in the third act. In particular, the final fight is impressively shot and paced and an earlier fight between Didier and Chan highlights the group’s martial arts backgrounds. If anything, this film is worth it just for the fighting.

Kickin' it old school.
Die Fighting earns an ‘A’ for effort, an ‘A’ for the fightwork, and a ‘C’ for the execution of the rest. The Z Team showcases some thoughtful ideas in the film and it works as a massive highlight reel for them, but outside of die hard action fans or martial arts junkies it may not resonate with the viewer. For this guy, it was a massively entertaining watch in the end and worthy for recommendation to those of the action inclination.

Written By Matt Reifschneider

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

V/H/S: Viral (2014)

Directors:  Nacho Vigalondo, Marcel Sarmiento, Gregg Bishop, Justin Benson, Aaron Scott Moorhead

They say that the third time is a charm. When it comes to the third V/H/S entry, this is not the case. The randomly titled V/H/S: Viral (Can a VHS actually go viral? Is tape trading even a thing anymore?) is something of an archetype for another term: missed opportunity. It was cause for concern when they announced this third entry and the names Wingard and Barrett were nowhere to be found as their influence was one of the reasons that the first two entries were so much fun despite the hit or miss nature of the anthology film. Viral suffers from their missing touch too. The collection here might have looked good on paper, but the resulting collection of short horror stories are anything but good and it leaves this latest entry as the one that might derail the franchise.

A young man finds himself at odds with a mysterious ice cream truck, when his girlfriend goes missing while trying to film the police in pursuit of the vehicle. As he chases it down, he finds that a mysterious broadcast has been playing some weird and macabre videos leading him to believe the two are connected.

No bones about it.
The above synopsis is only one of the stories that Viral highlights and exists as the ‘wraparound’ tale that the other stories exist in. While I appreciate that this story, which continues in a very loose manner the wraparound tales in the first two V/H/S films, takes it a bit further with the subtle use and mysterious nature of the sinister collection of horrific videos, it rarely gives the whole film the structure or flow needed to feel like the earlier entries. There are some intriguing ideas (I actually enjoy the idea of these tapes ‘going viral’), but it does not present the open concepts in a way that’s fun. It comes off as more frustrating and unfocused then it should.

That’s just the tip of the iceberg though. Rarely is the wraparound story for an anthology the best portion of the film, so the guts of Viral needed to step up to carry the weight. Outside of one story by director Nacho Vigalondo called "Parallel Monsters" (the director of the massively underrated Time Crimes), the rest fall to the same short falls. “Dante the Great” carries some fun almost Tales from the Crypt like vibes to its ridiculous premise, but it never runs with the humor and the found footage style doesn’t do its ridiculous ‘magic cloak’ premise any favors. The final story “Bonestorm," one about skateboarders who uncover a ritual in rural Mexico, carries no weight to it and is utterly, 100% filler in the film.

The only story that seems to even really try in Viral is the above-mentioned "Parallel Monsters." While the short film itself is rather goofy in its final twist, the execution of it is top notch and director Vigalondo adds enough atmosphere and dread to the weird science fiction plot that I was hooked within a minute of it starting. The more I think about it though, the more it doesn’t hold its own to most of the segments in either of the first two films so perhaps it just seems stronger when it is surrounded by the massive amounts of garbage that the other stories throw out there. Either way, it’s perhaps the only reason that this film earns the rating that it received.

Look at those bright shiny eyes!
V/H/S: Viral is just one massive missed opportunity after another one. I don’t think many of the ideas or concepts are all that disappointing, but the manner that the film makers jam them together just reeks of a rushed product and botched consistency. There is definitely potential to be found in Viral, but the end product is far from being as fun or solid as the previous two entries. It’s mostly for those franchise whores out there like me for viewing. Anyone else might be recommended a skip.

Written By Matt Reifschneider

Thursday, December 4, 2014

Hercules (2014)

Director: Brett Ratner

Notable Cast: Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, Ian McShane, John Hurt, Rufus Sewell, Aksel Hennie, Ingrid Bolso Berdal, Reece Ritchie, Joseph Fiennes, Tobias Santelmann

“You want madness? Tonight a spear of flame will pierce my heart. Is that not the most insane death you’ve ever heard of?”

Outside of the first Rush Hour (which still might be more nostalgia than anything), I simply am not a fan of Brett Ratner. His output is wonky at best as a director and he may or may not be responsible for the worst X-Men film the franchise has seen thus far. He is the one reason I skipped out on Hercules in theaters to begin with and he’s the main reason I was heavily skeptical of this quirky new tale of the muscular demigod. Maybe it’s the low expectations that have softened my cynical palette, but I’m not going to lie…I whole heartedly enjoyed Hercules way more than I had any right too. I’m not going to stake a claim that this is one of the most underrated films of the year or even go as far as to call it a good film, but the combination of the screen devouring cast and the tongue in cheek approach to the story had me sold ten minutes in.

Hercules (The Rock) is not quite the indestructible hero his legend has been built up to be. In fact, he’s a mercenary teamed with a handful of skilled fighters on the run from his old home and looking for enough cash to escape his tortured past and retire where he doesn’t have to use his immense strength to continually beat things. When the opportunity arises to finally make a huge score by defeating a vicious warlord, Hercules and his team jump at the chance. Is everything as it seems in this war torn country though?

Looking at Hercules’ plot can be a bit deceiving. The film takes an almost realistic approach to its legends and proceedings and twists the myths to fit a more standard sword and sandals formula. In a way, it’s a clever concept. Yet Hercules is far from the clever film you would think it is and the way that the plot often plays out is rarely as smart as the film prides itself on being. The characters are your set of run-of-the-mill parts of a whole, the twists in the plot are predictable, and even Ratner’s direction plays it far too safe with the style that mixes a bit of 300 with a more traditional action flick. As I said before, Hercules is rarely a great (or even good) film in many of the standard ways.

That being said, Hercules is a ton of fun and utterly charming in many ways. The Rock continually showcases his immense screen presence (although his character tends to lack those moments to make the more dramatic beats work…but we do get to see him flip a horse and spout off “Fucking centaurs” so take your pick) and the rest of his supporting cast charms their way through their cut out characters. A special nod has to go to Ian McShane who essentially steals every moment he opens his mouth by delivering some of the silliest lines with such drunk conviction that one can’t help but buy into it. This is matched with a ton of fun action set pieces. Not the Hercules vs. a mythical zoo that you saw in the trailers, but more classic sword clashing and fire arrows set pieces. Nothing original, but it’s certainly fun. This is the kind of approach that Ratner and company bring to the film and even when it’s at its worst, the film at least entertains.

Lion hats are all the rage.
Perhaps my expectations were skewed by my general distaste for the director and the generally over-hyped new world of swords & sandals flicks, but I actually found Hercules to be rather fun. It’s not going to win a lot of people over as it still falters at many of the core elements of being ‘a good film,’ but the rest is just charming enough to slide by. Take it with a grain of salt and you might have some fun with it.

Written By Matt Reifschneider

Sunday, November 30, 2014

See No Evil 2 (2014)

Directors: Sylivia Soska, Jen Soska
Notable Cast: Danielle Harris, Katharine Isabelle, Kane, Chelan Simmons, Kaj-Erik Eriksen, Greyston Holt, Lee Majdoub

I was not a fan of the first See No Evil. It was too silly, too focused on that early 00s slasher style, and hard to buy into with its generic characters. It was fun in that B-grade film sort of way, but I don’t drink enough to truly enjoy that film. Thusly, I was somewhat baffled by the announcement of the sequel almost a decade (?!) after the first. I was even more baffled by the slew of ‘scream queens’ that signed onto the film including the ever charming Danielle Harris and Katherine Isabelle. Then it floored me when I read that the underrated and super talented Soska Sisters would be handling the directorial duties. Could it be that See No Evil 2 would be the film I so wanted from the original? In a way, yes it is. It’s more serious and the adherence to slasher tropes certainly doesn’t invoke the eye rolling as the first one did. In another way, no it isn't all that I wanted as See No Evil 2 tends to flounder with the blend of artful atmosphere and classic slasher elements. In the end, it’s just a mixed bag.

The night after the events of the first film, our villainous monster of a killer Jacob Goodnight (Kane) is on his way to the morgue. Unfortunately for our graveyard shift workers looking for a slow night to celebrate the birthday of their colleague Amy (Harris), he isn’t quite as dead as he would seem. Now it’s a race for survival as the group attempts to get out of the morgue before Goodnight puts them all to sleep.

Victor Crowley couldn't stop her...good luck, Goodnight.
Initially, I was loving See No Evil 2. The Soska Sisters proved they could do heavy horror character work with their phenomenal flick American Mary and they pull from that guide book for the first third of this one. The two main characters are delightfully real and their chemistry onscreen is effective, adding some fun (if not rather cliché) dynamics to the group that fills itself out with fodder for the slaughter like the asshole jock brother and the skanky friend. However, the wild card in this set up is the quirky and screen devouring work from Isabelle whose awkward friend adds a bit of tongue-in-cheek oddity to rather serious proceedings. The Soska Sisters add just enough artful atmosphere and thoughtful translation to a generic script to set up the film for success. 

Unfortunately, it doesn’t fully last. Despite some solid efforts to create fresh feeling sets in an obvious low budget/one building second and third act, the film quickly becomes redundant and trudges along. There isn’t enough of the religious subtext for Goodnight to give him that edgy element (although there is a rather intriguing scene where his flashbacks interrupt his killing of the skanky character – her name eludes me unsurprisingly – but the film misses out on this opportunity to run with it) and it succumbs to the slasher formula too much to be nearly as interesting as it could have been. If the first film was too silly, it’s at this point that See No Evil 2 became almost too serious and it makes some of the more fun moments in the kills and chases feel a bit awkward. If it weren’t for the last ten minutes of the movie (where it takes some fun wicked turns and ends on a much stronger note), the film would have never lived up to its set up.

She takes 'hanging out' to new levels.
Perhaps it was my lofty expectations with the Soska Sisters at the helm that lead me down a path of disappointment for See No Evil 2, but this long awaited sequel lacked some of the fun to be entertaining and missed out on too many opportunities to take the film to the next level. The onscreen ensemble did a decent job and the Soska Sisters obviously did the best they could with the generic script they had. In the end though, See No Evil 2 sort of stumbles after a strong start only able to recover in fleeting moments.

Written By Matt Reifschneider

Thursday, November 27, 2014

Outlaw Brothers (1990)

Director: Frankie Chan
Notable Cast: Frankie Chan, Yukari Oshima, Siu Chung Mok, Kiu Wai Miu, Sheila Chan

The work of Frankie Chan is not well known outside of the deeper fans of martial arts films. This is mostly due to the fact that he stayed behind the scenes as a director, composer, or a fight director. Outside of the villain role in The Prodigal Son and his directorial work on the mediocre Legendary Amazons, I can’t say I was fully aware of his contributions to Hong Kong cinema until I started doing some research on this film, Outlaw Brothers. This film, however, exists purely because of him. He directed it, choreographed it, scored it, and acted as one of the leads in it. While Outlaw Brothers has some issues with some of the silliness of the plots and surface level thinking, for Hong Kong action fans the film hits all of the right buttons.

James (Frankie Chan) and Bond (Siu Chung Mok) have created a very successful life for themselves by stealing high end cars as guns for hire. James, however, finds himself at a crossroads when a local and highly skilled police officer (Yukari Oshima) starts to investigate him for the car thefts. He decides to play a game of it and finds himself falling in love with the strong willed police officer and takes this as a sign to get out of the business. Not that it is as easy as it seems when he finds his sister is accidentally involved with a ruthless crime syndicate. Now he will have to take his street skills to the big guns to find a way out.

If that outfit isn't as 80s as it gets...
While the plot seemingly feels like your average comedic crime caper with a hero trying to escape the life for love and being repeatedly pulled back in, what makes Outlaw Brothers so much fun is just how ridiculously action packed the film plays out. Frankie Chan (serving as lead actor and chief fight choreographer) might lack a lot of the charm to pull of the some of the chemistry and humor of the film, but his fight work is fucking phenomenal. Blending traditional kung fu fights with some outrageous stunt work, this film consistently delivers on the goods. A broom sequence in the opening is vintage Jackie Chan style through and through in the blend of humor and ass kickery, the finale blends two fight sequences intercut with weapons and a questionable use of chickens, and a car chase in the middle portion features enough crazy dangerous stunts I’m shocked US safety laws allowed it to be shown even decades after its release.

The problem then remains that the film falters to take advantage of some of its assets to blend the action and comedy together. Namely it doesn’t give Yukari Oshima a very good character to be one of the leads. She has quite a bit of screen presence and her action sequences are a blast, but her chemistry with Frankie Chan is mostly miss and the romantic triangle is poorly arranged and often forced. The same goes for a lot of the other subplots included Bond and his girlfriend, the sister and her abusive husband, and the random emergence of the villains in the last half.

He's a huge fan of kung fu.
Luckily, Outlaw Brothers rides on its action and 80s silliness to still be a very entertaining film. Sure this 80s Hong Kong actioner has some pretty big issues with the writing and some of the subplot execution, but I still had a pretty massive grin on my face the entire time I was watching it. Even though the end product is hit or miss, Outlaw Brothers definitely makes me want to go start collecting some of Frankie Chan’s other stuff…which is recommendation enough.

Written By Matt Reifschneider

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Zatoichi's Revenge (1965)

Director: Akira Inoue
Notable Cast: Shintaro Katsu, Norihei Miki, Mikko Tsubouchi, Takeshi Kato, Fujio Harumoto, Sachiko Kobayashi, Sonosuke Sawamura, Gen Kimura

“I don’t know who sent you, but you only get one life. You should guard it more carefully.” – Zatoichi

There have been many faces to the blind samurai Zatoichi we have seen thus far. Zatoichi, the antihero. Zatoichi, the blamed. Zatoichi, the savior. Zatoichi, the father. Yet, Zatoichi’s Revenge showcases a rather new aspect for our lovable and overtly deadly protagonist: Zatoichi, the feminist. Now back in 1965 I’m sure that word didn’t have the meaning as it does today and I’m not here to get all political or stand on some sort of social soapbox – but again, it’s simply a new facet to the multitalented franchise and one that shows just how remarkable this series is in its tenth entry. And while Revenge lacks a bit of the emotional punch as some of the better films, the combination of thoughtful pacing, strong visuals, and well-written characters makes it one of the stronger entries.

The continually wandering Zatoichi (Shintaro Katsu) comes across one of his old homes, a town where he learned his massage trade from a kind old teacher. When he finds out that his old master has been killed and that his daughter has been sold into prostitution, Zatoichi uncovers a political and yakuza scheme that will have him on the run and fighting for the lives of a plethora of wrongfully indebted young women.

It's a trap!
When it comes down to it, Zatoichi’s Revenge is more or less another entry into the long running series. It follows the basic formula we have seen established by now with Zatoichi stumbling into a town full of injustice and having to draw his cane sword in defense of oppressed. At this point there is not a whole lot of surprises to be had, outside of perhaps his now standardized duel with a corrupt ronin occurring to kick off the third act instead of closing it, and Revenge sits comfortably for fans of the franchise. What does sell this film as one of the better entries is the strong execution from the director and in the writing.

Following the trend to be less grindhouse and more classic samurai film that the last few entries harkened back towards, Revenge layers on a more serious approach to the proceedings and director Akira Inoue. Inoue frames every shot as its meant to be a picture and his love of creating depth and layering elements by placing objects or people close and/or in front of the action on screen makes each moment a rather intriguing visual spectacle. This leads to some of the franchise’s more memorable moments like a running shot where Zatoichi rips through an entire ally in chase of two of the villains cutting down thugs left and right and it crafts the rather formulaic approach as something fresh.

The baddies are outnumbered.
This is blended with some fun and thoughtful writing that embraces Zatoichi as a simple, but overly clever hero. The title Zatoichi’s Revenge might indicate a more emotional and personal plight against the villains, but outside of the initial set up the film plays it a bit safer than that instead focusing on how the baddies try to frame Zatoichi into their own game. This does allow for Zatoichi to team up with a humorous dice thrower to help him on his way, a character that adds an intriguing father/daughter subtext that works with the main plot’s ‘daughter of his master being wrongfully sold into prostitution.’ While it is not quite the father/son dynamic we last saw in Adventures of Zatoichi, it’s a nice addition to the regularly paint-by-numbers plot of the film.

Zatoichi’s Revenge might not be one of the most daring films for this franchise as it plays it relatively safe with the plot and style, but the execution of the script and visuals makes it rise above its own limits in many ways. Director Inoue delivers a film that feels fresh despite its formulaic approach and the continued strong work by Katsu and the supporting actors makes this entry one of my favorites. This one definitely comes highly recommended. 

Written By Matt Reifschneider

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Wrong Turn 6: Last Resort (2014)

Director: Valeri Milev
Notable Cast: Anthony Ilott, Chris Jarvis, Aqueela Zoll, Sadie Katz

Sometimes franchises happen for the most unexpected films. Had you asked me if The Fast and the Furious would have spawned six sequels when I saw in theaters ages ago, I would have laughed in your face. I feel the same way about Wrong Turn. Don’t get me wrong as the first one was a decent slasher gem and the second one is a grindhouse tongue in cheek blast, but after that the quality of the films tank hard. In fact, they are bad enough that I gave this sixth entry, needlessly subtitled Last Resort, a two out of five…and it was a substantial improvement over the last three sequels. At this point though, you know whether or not Wrong Turn 6 is the film for you so quality isn’t probably a huge issue.

When Danny (Ilott) and his girlfriend Toni (Zoll) are summoned by Danny’s long lost birth family to come inherit a retreat in West Virginia, they decide to check it out. Bringing out a loud of generic siblings and friends (read: fodder for the slaughter), they arrive only to find the massive resort being run by two creepy caretakers (Jarvis and Katz). What are the true intentions of this inheritance and how is it connected with the three vicious deformed killers in the woods?

Even if they die, they just keep coming back to make me review this shit.
Truthfully, if you go into Wrong Turn 6 looking for a relevant plot then, buddy, you took a wrong turn into the wrong franchise. At this point, the inconsistency of continuity between the sequels is laughable at best as long as you don’t think too hard about it. Wrong Turn 6 does try to make a rather memorable plot with its weird ‘welcome to the family’ kind of twist, but it’s continued adherence to slasher tropes certainly makes it about as predictable as possible. Wrong Turn 6 is boobs, blood, and butchery. That’s the essentials of its plot. Even then, outside of what seems like a lot of sex in this entry, the kills are rarely memorable and the special effects are decent at best.

I would be lying if I said that I wasn’t somewhat excited that Declan O’Brien would not be directing this latest entry. If anything, it was work of franchise newcomer Valeri Milev that injects a bit of new energy into this franchise. Not that the woods of Bulgeria (where this was filmed) look anything like the woods of West Virginia, but it seems like Milev is doing the best he can with what little substance he has in the script. In fact, there is a sequence with a monologue about deer hunting where Danny is bow hunting in the woods that is cut together with the death of a local sheriff that is probably one of the best scenes that this franchise has seen in decades. So it has that going for it.

Hold on! Let me take her place!
Other than that though, Wrong Turn 6 remains a generic and formulaic entry into a long buried franchise. Sure it’s a step up in quality thanks to Milev and some fun supporting performances (Katz and Jarvis seem to be having a lot of fun with their roles), but it is nothing to get overly excited about. I mean, it’s still the sixth entry of a slasher hillbilly franchise. So it’s not like I had a lot of hopes going into it to begin with. You either know if you want this in your collection or not before you see it.

Written By Matt Reifschneider

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Dead Snow 2: Red Vs Dead (2014)

Director: Tommy Wirkola
Notable Cast: Vegar Hoel, Orjan Gamst, Martin Starr, Jocelyn DeBoer, Ingrid Baas, Stig Frode Henriksen, Hallvard Holmen, Kristoffer Joner, Amrita Acharia, Derek Mears

The horror comedy genre owes big portions of its success to the groundbreaking work from both Sam Raimi and Peter Jackson (pre-Lord of the Rings). Their influence is a massive part of the material that Tommy Wirkola has put out in his career thus far. The first Dead Snow very obviously nodded to Raimi with its slap stick violence and atmospheric visuals, for example. For the sequel however, Wirkola digs up enough gore, humor, and over the top violence to kick it into the Peter Jackson homage territory. A move that not only makes a film that is funnier and gorier than the first, but one that just might be better.

Martin (Hoel) has barely survived the ordeal on the mountain against the army of undead Nazis, but a car wreck on his way down has left him hospitalized and under suspicion when no one believes that zombies killed his friends. That’s the least of his worries though after he finds out the doctors attached the zombie arm of the villainous leader Herzog (Gamst) onto his body and that the evil Nazis are on there way down from the mountain. With the help of some new friends from the Zombie Squad and a bit of supernatural strength from his new arm, Martin is going to have to take on an entire army…dead or alive.

"Look at all of those funny kills to come..."
The films of Tommy Wirkola certainly take a specific ‘taste’ from the viewer to enjoy. If you don’t find humor in horrible deaths, gratuitous gore, and non-stop violence then you might as well back off. If, however, you do find some humor in the vein of Evil Dead 2 or Dead Alive, sit back and prepare for the laughter in slaughter because Dead Snow 2 is going to hit all the right buttons.

The film is set to a lightning pace. It starts off right after the events of the first film as zombies attack Martin’s car on the way off of the mountain and rarely does the film stop from there. While the first film took time to set up characters and atmosphere, Dead Snow 2 assumes you’ve seen the first one and keeps it moving at full speed from there. Sure, there’s a bit of story here or there as they add a few new characters to the mix, like the bumbling nerds of the Zombie Squad complete with Star Wars quotes or the arrogant police chief out to capture Martin, but it mostly happens at a full run…which adds to the frantic fun of the film.

He had to be 'axed' a question.
At the pace that Dead Snow 2 moves, the resulting blend of humor and gore has to keep up and Wirkola and company are more than inspired for the task. Whether it’s the intentionally ridiculous slap stick violence of Martin’s slave zombie who continually perishes and comes back to life or the intense reign of terror that Herzog and his zombies inflict on the villages they storm through with their tank, all of the proceedings blend humor and horror with relative ease so that even when something relatively terrible happens…it’s hilarious. The gore effects are top notch and the film takes an almost action like turn in the final act that’s punctuated with phenomenal stunts. There is a sequence where Herzog throws Martin through the ceiling of a house and he comes back down to roll down a flight of stairs. It might be one of the best stunts I’ve seen this year.

Heads up.
While some might not like Dead Snow 2 as much for its lacking ‘pure horror’ elements that the first film contained, there is so much fun to be had with the humor and high paced antics of Martin, the massive zombie riots, and general destruction of people that rarely did I have time to really compare it until it was done. It does take a certain taste of humor and horror to enjoy the film, but with its strong executions and relentless pacing it’s hard not to recommend this to everyone. 

Written By Matt Reifschneider

Sunday, November 16, 2014

6 Bullets (2012)

Director: Ernie Barbarash
Notable Cast: Jean-Claude Van Damme, Joe Flanigan, Anna-Louise Plowman, Charlotte Beaumont, Kristopher Van Varenberg, Bianca Van Varenberg, Steve Nicolson, Uriel Emil Pollack, Louis Dempsey, Mark Lewis

The later years of Van Damme’s career are fascinating in many ways. An action star more associated with his off screen antics in the 90s and his cheesy films has seemingly found redemption in the last decade. Whether it be one of the more defining roles as the villain in Expendables 2 or the meta performance delivered in JCVD, the Muscles from Brussels has turned a leaf. Even in a low budget action thriller like 6 Bullets, Van Damme seems intent on adding that extra layer of ‘lost soul’ to a rather by-the-numbers flick. It works very well for him. Partnered with another solid directorial effort from Ernie Barbarash and a solid enough script, 6 Bullets ends up being a rather surprising thriller that had me hooked.

After his arrogance leaves a handful of innocents dead from his mistakes, an ex-mercenary turned detective for hire Samson Gaul (Van Damme) decides to give up his life to find a simpler one as a butcher. When a couple of American tourists lose their daughter to a people traffickers he decides to step back in for one last shot at redemption…and he might ignite a bigger fight than he was expecting.

More like spin kicking in the rain. Am I right?
I’m not trying to say that 6 Bullets is some kind of Oscar worthy film that no one understands. It has its issues, particularly when it comes to its obvious budget and some of the mediocre acting. All I’m saying is that for a straight to home video action thriller affair, 6 Bullets is easily a mark above the regular fodder in the game. It plays its action sequences more for impact of characters than for entertainment (which may deter some fans) and focuses more on the thriller elements. In fact, the opening action set piece that features Van Damme slashing and dashing his way through a brothel and then igniting all the cars in the parking lot with balls of flame might be interpreted as ‘old school Van Damme.’ Which is all the more reflected by his character’s remorse for that style of thinking as he becomes consumed with redeeming himself from his brash past in thoughtful and meaningful choices. Might be an indicator in itself for Jean-Claude about the entire Damme career if you think about it too much.

Not that 6 Bullets is a full on thinking man’s thriller. It follows a decently predictable path of twists and surprises that most fans familiar with the genre will be able to dictate by just reading the synopsis. It does touch on some decent fun here and there (is his friend in the police force a rat?!) with some fun secondary performances. Van Damme’s son, who has now been featured in quite a few of his more recent flicks, struggles a bit here and there but does a fine job in the end and the missing child’s parents seem to be a bit too knowledgeable in violence to be wholly believable. Like I said, it’s not winning any Oscars.

"Do you have time to talk about bringing Van Damme into your life?"
6 Bullets is just a fun film that does an admirable job at justifying some of its dramatic moments for a budget bin kind of flick. The action bits are well shot, the tension is upright to get the job done, and the film generates a solid role for Van Damme. I’m really starting to think that director Ernie Barbarash is a guy to really get behind when it comes to straight to home video action. 6 Bullets is just more proof of that.

Written By Matt Reifschneider 

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

14 Blades (2014)

Director: Daniel Lee
Notable Cast: Donnie Yen, Wei Zhao, Chun Wu, Kate Tsui, Sammo Hung

Sometimes being a foreign film fan can be a test of patience. For whatever reason, Donnie Yen has had a handful of films simply sit on the shelf for a US release and it makes fans a bit anxious. One of those was the pretty phenomenal The Lost Bladesman. The other one is the mixed results of 14 Blades, which, ironically, is the one of the two that finally saw a release here in the US. I had mixed feelings going into 14 Blades, particularly with Daniel Lee at the helm, and after the fact I feel even more torn. On one hand it’s an entertaining enough wuxia action flick, but on the other hand it’s utterly underwhelming with its predictable plot and often over zealous attempts at being epic – which is too often Daniel Lee’s calling card.

When the leader of a secret military unit Qinlong (Donnie Yen) is betrayed over the theft of a royal seal, he must dig into the mystery to uncover a larger conspiracy from royals in the Ming Dynasty. With the help of a delivery service team and rogue thieves, he will have to right all of the wrongs of his past and come to terms with his future.

That's one. 13 to go.
Initially, I was hesitant to even touch 14 Blades thanks to Daniel Lee. For as many films as he gets to direct over in Hong Kong, you would think that his style would grow on me. It still hasn’t. He handles action sequences as though he attempts at making every shot a statement of ‘oh man, that’s so cool’ versus thoughtfully looking at pacing and relevance to film as a whole. 14 Blades is guilty of all of his normal sins. Terrible CGI plagues many of the bigger moments, he overly relies on slow motion for pacing, and his ridiculous over the top moments are less jaw dropping as much as they are giggle inducing. A vicious witch like villain in the film plays out more like a final boss level in a video game with her tactics of floating, spinning, and undressing (?) which makes it unintentionally funny. What could have been a fun repeated battle between our anti-hero and the main antagonist plays out too silly and too overzealous in its attempts to be ‘cool looking.’ It’s a maneuver that bleeds too often into the rest of the film.

Normally, the fantasy elements and over the top epic attempts in storytelling wouldn’t bother me all that much. It’s a fucking wuxia film after all. Yet, the almost comic bookish way that 14 Blades is told repeatedly undermines the better elements. Donnie Yen as an anti-hero with a box of fourteen blades on his back? Wish I cared more about him so I gave two shits about his plight. A romantic subplot with the charming Wei Zhao? Wish there was more chemistry. A slew of quirky secondary cast including the scene stealing Chun Wu as a master thief? Wish they had more screen time to take away from the wooden romantic plot and predictable main story. It’s as if 14 Blades really wants to be a magnificent wuxia film with all of the right pieces. Too bad none of those pieces are nearly as awesome as they would read on paper or fit together in a flowing narrative.

Oh look, a pirate.
14 Blades is a film that entertains enough with some of its charming supporting cast and a decent enough performance from Donnie Yen, but the lacking cohesive flow, silly CGI riddled action set pieces, and over eager attempts at looking awesome make for a film that lacks the depth and execution to be one of the better modern wuxia films. Fans of Daniel Lee or Donnie Yen will probably still want to add this to their collection for various reasons, but those with a pickier taste in their foreign action cinema may want to hunt down and import a copy of The Lost Bladesman instead.

Written By Matt Reifschneider