Tuesday, 30 December 2014

The Brothers Bloom



Title: The Brothers Bloom
Director: Rian Johnson
Released: 2008
Starring: Mark Ruffalo, Adrien Brody, Rachel Weisz, Rinko Kikuchi, Robbie Coltrane, Maximillian Schell, Ricky Jay

Plot: Stephen (Ruffalo) and Bloom (Brody) are brothers and career con artists who travel the world with their largely mute sidekick Bang Bang (Kikuchi) working every more intricate schemes to swindle millionares. Having tired of the life Bloom decides he wants out only to be drawn into one final scheme to swindle the eccentric New Jersey heiress Penelope (Weisz), who he soon finds himself unexpectedly falling for.



Review: Thanks to some pretty horrible distribution this film unsurprisingly slipped under the radar for most people, as despite being the follow up to director Johnson’s critically acclaimed neo-noir debut “Brick” here in the UK it seemed to constantly be subjected to continual delays in its theatre release before eventually shuffling onto DVD with zero fanfare. Despite this Johnson continued to direct other projects mainly in TV most notably for “Breaking Bad” before the release of his hi-concept time travel thriller “Looper”.

Once again bringing a modern twist to a classic setting, here Johnson shoots the film with retro styling while throwing in the occasional modern element to remind us that the events are actually happening in modern times than the 1940’s styling would have you believe it’s set in, with Johnson unsurprisingly admitting to find inspiration for the film from the likes of “Paper Moon” and “The Sting”. At the same time he once again proves himself in procession of an eye for interesting characters as he once again gives us a cast of colourful and interesting characters.

At the centre of the story the two brothers are great characters thanks to Brody and Ruffalo alongside Weisz and Kikuchi embodying their roles, with the chemistry being Brody and Ruffalo being especially believable as the brothers who skills have kept them isolated from the outside world, to the point where Bloom feels that he doesn’t know who he is anymore from the years he’s spent playing various roles in the schemes concocted by his older brother. Together they fill in for the others shortcomings to form a strong team with their sidekick Bang Bang handling the more specialised aspects of their schemes or precisely blowing things up. Bang Bang of course is classic creation and one which could easily have stolen the film from the leads, as barely says a word throughout the film communicating via simple gestures which never fail to express what she is feeling at any given moment, even at time carrying on whole conversations as seen by when she questions Blooms sexual activities from the previous night. Still Kikuchi with her interesting outfit choices and real talent for visual comedy truly owns this role and left me truly wanting to see more of this character.

Rounding out the foursome is Penelope another colourful character thanks to her habit of collecting hobbies ranging from playing the harp and photography to the more random such as kung-fu and juggling chainsaws to help her cope with her self-imposed isolation. Of course this makes her the perfect mark for the brothers latest scheme which sees them posing as antique smugglers attempting a steal a rare book in Prague which Penelope is more than participate in. Weisz brings a great energy to the role even spending time learning to look like she knew how to do the assorted hobbies Penelope has amassed including playing the banjo, violin, guitar, piano, aswell as juggling, break dancing, skateboarding and giraffe unicycling. Help with the skateboarding and rap skills would surprisingly come from Brody who is surprisingly proficient in both skills. Sadly I was unable to find any footage of any of these training sessions as personally I never knew the guy had such skills, but then I didn’t know that Owen Wilson could skateboard either until her showed up in the Spike Jonze directed skateboard movie “Yeah Right”.

Always a fan of twist here, this proves to be the undoing for Johnson who seemingly got caught up with the colourful characters who appear throughout that the plotting became kind of secondary. The main issue being with the actual plot that Stephen devises that ultimately becomes so overly complex that it becomes far too confusing at times to follow and understand the roles which everyone plays or what the actual objective really is. This confusion is only added to by what is essentially an extended cameo by Robbie Coltrane whose star power makes his character ultimately seem far more significant than he really is and really the kind of role which should have been given to perhaps an actor of lower status, not that it isn’t of course nice as always to see Coltrane as always.

Maximillian Schell in what would ultimately be his final role adds a touch of villainy to the proceedings as their former mentor Diamond Dog, though thanks to his sporadic appearances and lack of any real development comes off weaker than I would have liked especially when he is supposed to be the films big evil, though ends up coming off as a morality comparison, to make the brothers schemes seem less evil by comparison.

While the film is full of Johnson's usual visual flair especially when it comes to his eye for the smaller details which frequently add to scenes throughout the film, its just a shame especially when he I giving us such fun characters that the plot is frequently so confused that it stops me from recommending this film more, but as a flawed watch you can do worse.

Monday, 22 December 2014

Jingle All The Way 2



Title: Jingle All The Way 2
Director: Alex Zamm
Released: 2014
Starring: Larry the Cable Guy, Brian Stepanek, Santino Marella, Kennedi Clements, Kristen Robek, Rachel Hayward, Matty Finochio, Eric Breker, Brenda Crichlow, Alex Zamm

Plot: Divorced dad Larry (Larry the Cable Guy) is on the hunt for a Harrison Bear the must have toy for his daughter Noel (Clements), only to soon find himself in direct competition with her wealthy stepfather Victor (Stepanek).


 
Review: This sequel has certainly been a long time in the works coming 18 years after the original film, which saw Arnie showcasing his usual action hero antics only within a family movie setting and while it might have been critically mauled on its release it has over years built a notable cult following making the fact that we now have this film none the less surprising.

Directed by Alex Zamm whose spent most of his career churning out direct to DVD sequels, the film is interestingly also a co-production with “WWE Studios” who have now moved from their original template of putting wrestlers into leading roles for their productions and now instead use their roster in supporting roles for the majority of their output bar a couple of exceptions such as “The Marine” series and the forthcoming “The Condemned 2 which have stuck to the original template. So with this film we get Santino Marella (minus his trademark Italian accent) playing the sidekick to bumbling redneck Larry.

Sadly Arnie choose not to come back for the sequel dashing any hopes we might have had in seeing a round two between him and Sinbad which in a perfect world would have been in giant furby costumes, but alas it was sadly not to be. So instead we have Larry playing….well Larry a character which is not too much of a stretch from his usual antics as he plays the fun loving and terminally laid back father, who shares a great relationship with his daughter, even with his questionable approach to parenting as seen with the film opening with his questionable approach to a healthy breakfast (Cheetos and twinkies). At the same time he has a great relationship with his ex-wife, let alone everyone he encounters, but still it is nice to see a more modern look on the divorced parent’s scenario, than the usual my ex-wife is a bitch. I do have to question how we are supposed to believe that these two were ever married especially considering how polar opposite they are yet alone the fact that she would ever except going to sizzler on her honeymoon as Larry proudly proclaims.

Plot wise the film is none to different from the first with Larry dashing about trying to find a Harrison bear, which seemingly is a furrier version of the “Good Guy Doll” from “Child’s Play” as it interacts with the child and learns their name etc, only with none of the downsides of being possessed by the spirit of a serial killer. However unlike the first film here the toy is in plentiful supply which would have made this a much shorter film, had it not been for Noel’s wealthy stepfather who uses his fortune made from cardbox boxes which it would seem are surprisingly lucrative, seeing how he is able to buy up every Harrison bear in town as part of his “Operation: Who’s The Daddy” scheme which I’m not sure if it means the same stateside, but here in the UK certainly has a more raunchy meaning. Stepanek while for the most part in the role is pretty much seems to be going through the motions of your typical direct to DVD villain only minus any kind of real threat and at the same time lacking in the smugness that Phil Heartman brought to fill this void that the lack of threat brings, even though his surprisingly more threatening head of security does a pretty good job.

I’ve not had a lot of experience with the work of Larry the Cable Guy and only recently found out while researching for this review that he is also the voice of Mater in “Cars” but here he certainly seems to be channelling the same fun energy that Jim Varney brought to his “Ernest” movies even if Larry does seem to embrace the same love of over the top disguises, with the closest to this being when he pretends to be homeless to get a bear at a toy drive, which while kind of questionable does at least see Larry question his actions. The majority of the film though is spent concocting increasingly more hair brained schemes, such as a failed attempt to put together his own festive lights display or even more randomly trying to bring snow down from the mountains. Its only made more random by the willingness for other people (mainly Claude) are to help him with them.

The humour throughout is largely slapstick with a spattering of forced humorous moments but compared to the live action of Disney its certainly miles ahead even if its lingering around the same comedy level of most frat comedies, making it not a bad way to waste away some time over the festive season. Ultimately though this does pale in comparison to the superior original whose inventiveness let alone star power helped raise it well above the level of your usual festive vehicle so it was always going to be a hard film to beat but compared to the current crop of festive movies this is certainly one of the better efforts and it certainly made me smile while equally making me hope that we see more film work by Santino Marella.

Friday, 19 December 2014

The Nutcracker In 3D



Title: The Nutcracker In 3D
Director: Andrei Konchalovsky
Released: 2009
Starring: Elle Fanning, Charlie Rowe, John Turturro, Frances De La Tour, Aaron Michael Drozin, Nathan Lane, Richard E. Grant, Julie Vysotskaya
 
Plot: Set in 1920s Vienna where nine-year old Mary (Fanning) is given a Nutcracker doll by her uncle Albert (Lane) which is brought to life via her imagination. Together they travel to a magical dimension were toys are human and where the evil Rat King (Turturro) and his army threaten to overthrow humanity.
 

 
Review: A favourite of my good friend Emily, who it seems is on a one woman campaign to champion the hell out of this movie, not because it is any good but more because of how spectacularly awful it is, as she highlighted when she came on the podcast recently for the "Alt. Christmas Special" so really it was only a question of time before I gave in to temptation and watched it. One of the equally fascinating aspects of this film is that it was a pet project of Director Konchalovsky who is best known for “Runaway Train” and “Tango and Cash” and would spend over 20 years trying to get it developed though having seen the end results there is an overwhelming feeling that you kind of wished he hadn’t bothered.
 
One of the main problems with this film (and there are certainly more than a few) is that its tone is so confused it’s hard to tell if Konchalovsky had anyone else in mind other than himself when it came to his target audience, as here we have scenes of childlike fantasy slotted alongside holocaust and fascist imagery, which only becomes more confusing when the plotting is so sporadic and loosly strung together that your never quite sure what it is your watching, much less if the script actually existed to begin with or were the actors just being given notes on how to play things.
 
Of course things take a turn for the strange pretty early on, as the traditional setting is mixed up with the introduction of Uncle Albert who is none other than the world renown physicist Albert Einstein. Why him? Who knows as like so many aspects of this film it is never explained, but here he is and atleast played by Lane with some element of fun and perhaps a hint of Mary Poppins. Randomly breaking the fourth wall when the urge grabs him for no reason other than to seemingly highlight well nothing it would seem he is also the most interesting character in the film especially when bursting into a song about his theories of relativity… I mean who knew he was so musical?
 
Rivalling him though has to be the truly insane rat king portrayal by Turturro who equally seems to also be having the most fun here, whose fascist regime comes with some worrying comparisons to the Nazi’s especially as he commands his creates pyres of toys to burn in his factories to block out the sun as part of his great plans for world domination. At the same he emphases his evil nature by bursting into “Cabaret” inspired song and dance inspired routines, including one which climaxes in him electrocuting his own pet shark! Still not sure about the logic of this move whether it was to lose the Bond villain comparisons or generally just further emphasise his evil nature. As such it ends up yet another random plot point and one of the shopping list of things which is never explained so done with any kind of rational reasoning.
 
Still if this wasn’t bad enough his face also warps into a demonic rat head when he gets angry which was kind of shocking to myself so god knows what the kids made of those scenes, as after all this is supposed to be a family film. This is of course only topped by him random decapitating the Jamaican drummer boy before tossing the head around in a warped game of catch. Okay the Jamaican boy is supposed to be a toy brought to life like the rest of this world inhabitants, but seeing how they don’t resemble anything toy like, its hard to see this as anything other abit of gratuitous (yet blood free) violence.
 
The majority of the music is taken from Tchaikovsky’s original music for “The Nutcracker” which then have lyrics added by none other than Broadway legend Tim Rice. That’s right kids the same guy who is responsible for giving us the likes of Evita and The Lion King was also involved in this creative car crash. Clearly he never saw the “Star Wars Holiday Special” as he would have known have that adding words to popular classics never turns out well, I mean who could forget Carrie Fisher warbling about life day to the Star Wars theme?!? Still regardless of his song writing credentials the songs here vary between forgettable and annoying with some even managing to straddle the two.


 
Too weird for mass consumption and too tedious for the most part for the open minded, this is the kind of movie that you watch with the intention of generally tearing it apart and making your own amusement from as to watch it in a more traditional sense is just sheer madness as this is one dream project which is just more of a nightmare while leaving you no doubt feeling that the twenty plus years he waited to make it weren’t nearly long enough!

Monday, 15 December 2014

Bad Santa


Title: Bad Santa
Director: Terry Zwigoff
Released: 2003
Starring: Billy Bob Thornton, Tony Cox, Brett Kelly, Lauren Graham, Lauren Tom, Bernie Mac, John Ritter

Plot: Conman and safecracker Willie (Thornton) and his dwarf partner Marcus (Cox) seemingly have the perfect con. Posing as a shopping mall Santa the pair case each mall in preparation of Christmas Eve when they rob the stores within. However their plans threaten to come undone when Willie’s numerous vices look set to consume him.



Review: Probably the best known of Zwigoff’s back catalogue no doubt that’s to the controversy which is always surrounds painting Santa in anything but the traditional light and Thronton’s performance as the titular Bad Santa is certainly no exception. Here he gives us a truely morally devoid character who cheats, steals and spends most his time blind drunk, which really is kind of for starters as he constantly seems to find new lows to sink to.

Needless to say Zwigoff here is hardly giving us a film full of Christmas cheer or well much of any kind of cheer to be honest as this is a black comedy in only the darkest shades as here he unleashes a side which even the established fans weren’t expecting as was certainly the case for myself who was left kind of shell shocked by what I had just watched which honestly doesn’t seem to lessen even with repeated viewings, as Zwigoff positively refuses to lighten up the character of Willie and instead plunges him only into lower and often frequently more deprived depths.

Still things are not all doom and gloom as we do get the great scenes of Willie going through the
motions under his Santa guise, sarcastically responding to the lists wheeled off my the children who come to visit him completely unaware of his real intentions, much less his blatant lack of interest in anything they are saying and generally giving foul mouthed and sarcastic responses when he does. True the film could have worked without the hidden criminal intensions and instead just focused on Willie doing the job as bad as he does.

While his actions might question even the most hardened believer it seemingly doesn’t deter Thurman, an overweight kid aswell as hardly the shiniest pebble in the pile judging by his firm belief that Willie is in fact the real Santa. It’s a situation that of course Willie is more than happy to take advantage of as he sets up home in Thurman’s house where he’s lives with his senile grandmother who spends most of the film in a seemingly catatonic state. At the same time he also brings with him his girlfriend of sorts Sue (a highly underrated Lauren Graham) who has her own unique love of Santa. Of course the relationship between Thurman and Willie frequently provides many of the film’s most cringe worthy moments as Thurman makes constant offers of sandwiches while at the same time never showing the slightest hint of emotion to any of Willie’s foul outbursts he unleashes on him, while Thurman’s clear lack of any kind of contact or social interaction makes kind of sad to watch him being treated in such a way, especially when Willie is essentially supposed to be the guy we are supposed to be wanting to pull himself out of his self-destructive slump. However when faced with Willie stealing the chocolate from Thurman’s advent calendar after a particular heavy binge session it’s hard to not despair slightly, especially when it seems that Zwigoff is doing everything possible it seems to challenge the audiences love for this character.

Perhaps it’s only because the other characters in the film are as equally corrupt that we can view Willie as the lesser of the numerous evils on show here, with Marcus clearly only using Willie for his safecracking skills let alone the fact that he holds a certain amount of control over him being his only source of income despite his initial promises to go straight after the heist they pull at the start of the film, only for Willie as Marcus predicts to drink it away by the following Christmas leaving him back in the same position he was before. At the same time the duo now also have to deal with the attentions of security boss Gin (Mac) who despite initially following up on the suspicions of the prudish mall manager Bob (Ritter) soon sees an opportunity to get in on the score as he launches his campaign of blackmail against them.

Unquestionably this is Thornton’s movie who steals every scene he’s in which isn’t too hard when he’s either unleashing some foul mouth tirade (over 300 curse words to be exact while the director’s cut adds an additional 286!) or generally just fowling himself. How much of this was method though remains to be seen, especially when Thornton openly admits to spending most of filming actually drunk. Still considering Bill Murray and Jack Nicolson were also in the running for the role, only to drop out due to commitments to over roles, but now to imagine anyone else in the role. Frustratingly the rest of the cast are more hit and miss with John Ritter in what would sadly be his final performance coming off more awkward thanks to some horrible dialogue seemingly written to highlight his neurotic nature, only for it to frequently prove to be a source of irritation, while Bernie Mac is as funny as you generally find him as he wheels out his usual comedy style.

Honestly though even as a big fan of Zwigoff’s work I found this one hard going, mainly because of how dark a comedy it is and more so when Zwigoff is so unrelenting in how far he takes the film to such dark places that it would make even Todd Solondz question if he’d taken it too far. At the same time when this film works it really does and it’s a shame that the few outstanding moments are so drowned out by the darker ones. As such I would recommend watching it with at least something lighter on standby as chances are you’re going to need it by the end of this one.

Monday, 8 December 2014

Elwood's Essentials #9 - Gremlins



Title: Gremlins
Director: Joe Dante
Released: 1984
Starring: Zach Galligan, Phoebe Cates, Hoyt Axton, Frances Lee McCain, Corey Feldman, Dick Miller, Jackie Joseph, Polly Holliday, Howie Mandel

Plot: When Billy’s father (Axton) gives him a mogwai for Christmas a fuzzy little creature called Gizmo (Mandel) with a simple set of rules. However when Billy (Galligan) accidently breaks these rules he unwittingly unleashes a horde of anarchy loving monsters.



Review: I think every critic has that one film which sparked their love of cinema and which inturn set them on their path of film criticism. For myself I would have to say it is would be this film, which I saw back in a time when your parents would take you to the video store and allow you to rent a film, which always used to come with that wonderful feeling of knowing that this tape was yours for the whole weekend and in turn would lead to you spending the weekend watching the same film over and over. It was of course through one of these weekends while staying at my grandparents, who remarked that I’d seen this film so many times I could no doubt write the script. This of course would prove to be all the inspiration I would need and over the course of the next few days I sat at my grandfather’s typewriter and churned out what I thought was the script but in all honestly could better be described as a junior novelisation of the film, which my grandfather would later illustrate the borders of with sketches of Gizmo and various gremlins. It would be from here that I would only continue my love of writing before eventually moving into film criticism when I started media studies, but there has always has been something about this film which has caused it to never lose its charm even after countless viewings.

It strange that a film which falls pretty firmly between horror and black comedy is so regularly viewed as family entertainment, no doubt due to the adorable presence of Gizmo and the Muppet like antics of his slimy evil offspring which meant that so many kids in my school saw it even if their parents were normally more conservative about what they let them watch. This tactic honestly made zero difference as these kids tended to just go and watch the movies their parents wouldn’t let them watch at the house of some kid whose parents weren’t so fazed by such things. This is only made the more confusing when consider that the fact the film features more than a few gooey moments of gore.
 
In many ways a throwback to the likes of “Abbott and Costello Meet The Wolfman” in which it perfectly balances horror and comedy, so that when it’s supposed to be scary it is actually scary, while the comedy elements it’s safe to say are probably what has helped it maintain such a legacy and part of why Dante choose to up the comedy for the sequel. Dante though likes to make broad strokes with the comedy elements as he combines simple slapstick moments frequently curtesy of Billy’s inventor father and his useless inventions which usually comes with messy outcomes. At the same time he also manages to pull off more subtle sight gags as seen in both the bar and cinema sequences, which only reward repeated viewing, especially with the cinema sequence which has so many fun details scattered throughout, while the sight of hundreds of gremlins taking a break from the chaos to sing –a-long to “Hi-Ho” from “Snow White and The Seven Dwarfs” still brings a goofy grin to my face even now.   

No doubt another reason the film continues to last is the sheer likability of the characters, starting with the strong family unit who are truly believable as a family something seemingly lost in films after the 80’s. Billy also makes for the right combination of wholesome charm and common man bravado so that he is a believable hero, even if he finds himself frequently being bettered by the creatures, as none more clearly seen in his shopping mall showdown with the head Gremlin Spike where he spends most of it being assaulted by the vicious little sod. The other reason unquestionably is the overwhelming cuteness of the good Mogwai Gizmo, voiced by a pre “America’s Got Talent” judge Howie Mandel, who despite not speaking only a couple of words in English outside of his frenzied babble never fails to express himself, even if we never know why he such a stickler for following the rules which stop him turning into a gremlin aswell.

Interesting through the original script would have made for a much darker movie than the final film, as it saw not only Billy’s mother being killed, but also his dog being eaten by the gremlins and more shockingly Gizmo turning into a gremlin and turning into the stripe. A large number of these changes came at the request of executive producer Steven Spielberg while director Dante clearly knew which battles to pick as he fought to keep the darker view of the holiday season which Kate (Cates) has as she not only references holiday related suicides but also the dark tale of her father’s death as the result of trying to climb down the chimney while dressed as Santa which Dante stubbornly refused to remove as he argued that it represented the film as a whole. True her darker moments went over the heads of kids who watched the film who if they were anything like myself were too distracted with the fun gremlin antics, but rewatching the film now it adds a subtle dark edge to Kate’s character and rising her above the usual damsel in distress style character.

While the sequel would ultimately be more focused on upping the comedy elements, while Dante at the same time ensured that he broke the franchise in such a way that he wouldn’t be forced to produce another sequel, which currently seems to have worked despite the frequent threats of reboots which continue to float around. Dante though it would seem is still not ready to return to the series especially considering how long it took to shoot the gremlin sequences, which still stand up even now, while providing yet another great argument for the advantage of practical effects over CGI.

No matter how many times I’ve seen this film it still holds the same charm it did when I first watched it, thanks to some great performances let alone the fact it stars the always wonderful Dick Miller as the patriotic Murray Futterman who makes for such a fun double act with Jackie Joseph its little surprise that Dante brought them back for the sequel. However while this film might not be as madcap as the sequel it more than stands on its own merits with a perfect blend of horror and comedy which only begs the question as to why Joe Dante never seems to get the recognition he rightfully deserves especially here when he is clearly working at the height of his powers to craft something truly special which rises well above being another monster movie.

Tuesday, 2 December 2014

Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer



Title: Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer
Director: John McNaughton
Released: 1986
Starring: Michael Rooker, Tom Towles, Tracy Arnold, Mary Demas, Kristin Finger, Anne Bartoletti, Ray Atherton, Kurt Naebig

Plot: Henry (Rooker) a nomadic serial killer embarks on a killing spree with his roommate Otis (Towles), while at the same time trying to keep up appearances when Otis’s sister Becky (Arnold) comes to stay with them.  


 
Review: Despite not being a part of the video nasties list produced by the ruling of the “1984 Video Recordings Act” this film none the less still managed to generate more than its fair share of controversy, were it ran afoul of the James Ferman era of the BBFC and saw the film being trimmed of 113 seconds. In fact it would take until 2003 before we saw a fully uncut version here in the UK. Thankfully now that the uncut version is readily available the film can be enjoyed in its full grimy glory, with the previous edits through the year and how detrimental they were certainly becoming obvious when you watch the film in the form it was intended to be seen even if it is frequently uncomfortable viewing to say the least.

Shot in a month on a shoestring budget of $110,000 and given the brief of making a horror film with plenty of blood, Director McNaughton found his inspiration after watching an episode of “20/20” about serial killer Henry Lee Lucas. This however is not a straightforward biopic as McNaughton instead bases the film on Lucas’ fantasies and confessions rather than the actual crimes he was convicted for, while many other similar details between the lives of the two Henry’s being altered to make them less shocking such an Otis’s sister being made older than her real life counterpart, while here Henry and Otis are noted as having met in prison rather than in a soup kitchen. Interestingly though McNaughton decides to keep Henrys’ childhood traumas almost identical to the ones described by Lucas.

Despite the link to a notorious serial killer, the film more than stands on its own even without the comparisons to real life events thanks to an incredible debut by Michael Rooker, who was an actor I’d become more accustomed to seeing playing more straightforward psychos and trashy redneck style characters than anything resembling a leading role, but here he embodies the character of Henry as he effortlessly shifts between the shy and awkward face he presents to those around him and the sadistic and quick to violence dark side. It is easy to understand while his performance was so quickly acclaimed, let alone the amount of further jobs he was offered as result of tapes being passed around while the film was being put through the censorship shears, especially when Rooker reportedly spent most of filming in character which no doubt wasn't particular fun for costume designer Patricia Hart who would carpool with Rooker to the set each day. At the same time he plays well off Towles’ unquestionably sleazy Otis who largely serves to provide a dark style of buffoonery when not trying to hit on his own sister as he takes an almost apprentice style role, while equally highlighting the limits which Henry has set for himself, even when it frequently doesn’t seem to have any.

While the violence within the film is a source of much controversy this is not a splatter happy slasher, especially when we witness only the aftermath of Henrys’ murders for the first half of the film and even then the film does with perhaps the exception of the murder of a TV salesman, McNaughton remains surprisingly restrained for these scenes, instead proving that he can shock with simply shot yet surprisingly effective imagery as more than clearly emphasised with the home invasion sequence which would suffer the most cuts over the course of its journey to its current uncut status and unquestionably it is not the easiest sequence to watch, especially when its aftermath lingers on longer than you would like after the violence has passed, while as the film switches to Henry and Otis rewatching their handiwork on video unfazed by their actions and certainly in the case of Otis who demands a rewatch a mixture of pride and amusement which carries over from the tape.

Perhaps also due to the lack of budget McNaughton was forced to restrain the gore here, which in a strange twist of fate plays in the films favour like so many of the aspects of the film which came out of pure coincident. Examples including the fact that the limited budget meant that the cast wore their own clothes, with Rooker who at the time was still working as a high school janitor taking his jacket off during the murder scenes so that he wouldn’t get blood on them, which at the same adds a sense of process to the murders he commits. Elsewhere not being able to afford extras McNaughton just used the pedestrians who happened to be on the streets when he was shooting, while the two guys arguing as Becky walks up from the subway were in fact just two guys having an argument.

Unquestionably though it is a sense of ill ease which McNaughton shoots the film with as he never allows the audience to feel at any point comfortable around these characters, with Rooker frequently coming across like he might snap at any moment into one of his violent rages, while at the same time forgoing the inclusion of any representative for the forces of right as like the title states here he is aiming solely to provide a portrait of this character and while Henry’s world starts to crumble around him at the films climax, McNaughton allows us something of a slight reprieve as he hints of salvation for Henry through the character of Becky, only to slam the door close with an ending which is nothing short of chilling.

A grimly fascinating film, which while far from an enjoyable experience is none the less an engaging one, while in many ways paving the way for the likes of “Man Bites Dog” and “Behind the Mask: The Rise of LeslieVernon” while Rookers performance remains ingrained long after the credits have rolled, with this classic example of low budget film making.

Wednesday, 26 November 2014

Elwood's Essentials #8: Paprika



Title: Paprika
Director: Satoshi Kon
Released: 2006
Starring: Megumi Hayashibara, Toru Furuya, Toru Emori, Katsunosuke Hori, Akio Otsuka, Koichi Yamadera

Plot: In the near future, a device called the “DC Mini” has been created which allows the user to view people’s dreams. Heading up this treatment is Doctor Atsuko Chiba who also uses the machine to further her research outside of the  facility under her alter-ego Paprika. However when the machine is stolen all hell looks set to break loose as the line between dreams and reality becomes increasingly blurred.



Review: It is always a sense of sadness which accompanies each of Satoshi Kon’s films I watch, especially when they equally serve as a reminder of the seemingly unlimited creativity he processed which due to his untimely death from Cancer would ultimately total four films while his fifth “Dreaming Machine” still lingers in production limbo despite the efforts of the founder of Animation studio “Madhouse” Masao Maruyama which have suffered due to lack of funding for the project. As his final film before his death this film does however provide a suitable closing note to an unquestionably impressive, if yet at the same time still underrated film making resume which has in turn inspired the likes of Darren Aronofsky who drew inspiration for “Black Swan” from “Perfect Blue” while this film in particular would prove a key inspiration for Christopher Nolan’s “Inception” which only becomes all the more clearer when you watch the film.

Originally intended to be the follow up to his debut “Perfect Blue” it would however be delayed when original distribution company Rex Entertainment went backrupt, leading Kon to make “Millennium Actress” instead. Thankfully the wait would prove to be worthwhile as her Kon is clearly working at the top of his ability as he combines dazzling visuals with complex plotting, while at the same time further exploring the synergy of dreams and reality a theme which run throughout most of his films as well as his series “Paranoia Agent” but here he puts it up front and centre.

Opening with a blustering dash through the various dreams of Detective Toshimi Konakawa (Otsuka) which play like a series of random movie clips and see him not only engaging in a spot of Tarzan action but also taking the lead in his own spy thriller before Kon suddenly snaps us back into reality or atleast one of the many forms it takes in this world, with Kon quickly following up this attention grabbing opening with the zany opening sequence which see’s Chiba switching between her alter-ego Paprika and her real form while Kon sprinkles even the supposed real world with fun surreal elements as colourful adverts suddenly come to life as she passes them.
 
Even in the real world it is still one packed with fascinating characters with certainly the most memorable having to be the monstrously obese and childlike genius Tokita who created the DC Mini and who when we first encounter him has wedged himself inside a lift. The dreamscape however is where Kon truly lets his creativity shine with his centrepiece being a maniacal parade, comprised of various colourful characters which rolls on like an unstoppable tide and only continues to be added to as the dreamscape grows ever more out of control. Elsewhere Chiba as Paprika is able to manipulate the dreamscape to her advantage, turning herself into a fairy and even at one point taking on the form of Monkey (a reference possibly lost on those not up to speed on their Asian mythology) complete with staff and magic cloud! Of course the further she delves into the dreamscape the more twisted it becomes especially the closer she gets to those responsible for abusing the power the DC Mini provides the user with.

While the visuals might be exceptionally pretty to look at they are truly heightened by the electro heavy soundtrack composed by long term collaborator Susumu Hirasawa who once again pulls off something quite special, while many such as the parade theme and opening theme are exceptionally catchy while having that rare quality of working even when taken away from the film.

Unquestionably this is a film which requires more than one watch especially when the plotting can at times come off perhaps slightly unnecessarily complex in places, especially towards the end when the two worlds become fully blurred leading to some certainly impressive sequences, especially when you look at the level of detail in scenes like the parade, whose sheer variety of characters may even have you hitting the pause button to take them all in.

While this film like so many of his films might not be as well known outside of anime fan circles, I can really only hope that this film one day get exposed to a wider audience so that it will be rightfully refrenced alongside the likes of “Akira” and “Ghost In The Shell” when it comes to naming truly great anime, especially when it once again proves that animated films can provide the same thrill and wonder as life action, while providing a fitting end note (for now) to the remarkable career of Satoshi Kon

Sunday, 23 November 2014

Master of the Flying Guillotine

 

Title: Master of the Flying Guillotine
Director: Jimmy Wang Yu
Released: 1976
Starring: Jimmy Wang Yu, Chin Kang, Lau Kar-Wing, Lung Wei Wang, Philip Kwok, Lung Fei, Doris Lung

Plot: Following on from the events of “One Armed Boxer” Liu Ti Lung (Wang Yu) finds himself being hunted by the blind imperial assassin Fung Sheng Wu Chi (Kang) and master of the deadly flying guillotine who is determined to avenge his disciples.



Review: Despite being a sequel to “One Armed Boxer” it’s really not required that you saw the first film as this film works perfectly well as its own standalone film, while at the same time fuelled by its own grindhouse charms which cover for many of its flaws to provide a deliriously fun experience.

Helmed by its leading man Jimmy Wang Yu who while perhaps not as well known or certainly as skilled as many of the better known actors within the martial arts genre, it hasn’t stopped him from amassing an impressive back catalogue which includes Australia’s only kung-fu movie “TheMan From Hong Kong” as he largely gives us a more fantastical style of martial arts which strangely somehow manages to work still, but then everything in this film is so far stretched his skills hardly comes into question.

Opening to Fung showcasing his skills with the flying guillotine as he decapitates a bunch of dummies (and a chicken) before blowing up his own house as he also shows off his love of explosives which interestingly are his backup weapons of choice. Despite being blind he is hardly hampered thanks to his sharpened sense of hearing which enables his to pin point his targets. On the flipside though it does mean that he has no idea what Liu actually looks like, not that it deters him from his mission of revenge in the slightest as he counters this flaw in his revenge plans by killing any one armed man he encounters, with the plan seemingly being that he would eventually find Liu through process of elimination (or decapitation in this case). Unsurprisingly this does lead to a series of imitators meeting a grisly end as a result of their ruse.

Liu meanwhile has all but retired, preferring to teach his students than compete in competition, as he turns down the frequent attempts to recruit him for a local martial arts tournament which makes up a sizeable chunk of the film as we watch a variety of martial artists each with their own unique style competing against each other with the highlights being an Indian Yogi played by a blacked up Wong Wing-Sang who has the ability to stretch his arms bringing to mind Dalsim from “Street Fighter” while frequent Wang Yu collaborator Lung Fei shows up as a Tonfa welding Japanese fighter, whose weapon of choice also hides a secret blade. Despite his constant presence in the film he largely seems more concerned with stealing away the feisty Doris Lung.

The titular weapon is an interesting one and one rarely seen in most kung-fu movies, perhaps because of its fantastical nature seeing how it is essentially a bladed Frisbee which turns into a bag over an opponent’s head before cleanly decapitating them with a flick of the chain its attached to. Strangely enough it was an actual weapon hailing from the time of the Yongzheng Emperor during the Qing Dynasty and while its effectiveness might be questionable here it makes for an interesting centrepiece especially when used with such fantastical skill from the blind master no less!

The fight scenes are all pretty fun, especially with such a wide range of style on offer especially with the fighting tournament which makes up the middle section basically providing an excuse to include them, much less providing a reason for half of the opponents Liu faces are in town in the first place. Why so many seem to readily willing to help Fung is unclear and if their reasons are rooted in money or the acclaim of beating the one armed boxer is furthermore never explained. Still with so many great set pieces such as a fight inside a burning hut with a heated floor and the final showdown between Liu and Fung inside a coffin shop as Liu utilises a number of tricks and traps including spring loaded axe launchers to defeat his formidable opponent.

While Wang Yu might not be the most skilled of martial artists as I mentioned earlier here his weaknesses are covered thanks to a combination of wire work and martial arts mcguffins as he makes comments to the importance of jumping and balance as he demonstrates walking around the edge of a large pot and even walking along the ceiling as the film once again throws any attempt at logic out of the window not that any of the films from their era were big on it either, but this film genuinely seems to revel in seeing how far it can push things.

Ultimately this film is a lot of fun and while it might not be the most technically perfect demonstration of martial arts it’s so fast passed and fun it gives you no time to concern yourself with such issues as it makes for an enjoyable dose of Kung-fu madness.

Tuesday, 11 November 2014

Yatterman



Title: Yatterman
Director: Takashi Miike
Released: 2009
Starring: Sho Sakurai, Saki Fukuda, Chiaki Takahasi, Kyoko Fukada, Kendo Kobayashi, Katsuhisa Namase, Junpei Takiguchi, Anri Okamoto, Sadao Abe, Koichi Yamadera

Plot: Gan Takada (Sakurai) and his girlfriend Ai (Fukuda) live a double life as the crime fighting heroes Yatterman protecting the city of Tokyoko from the schemes of the Doronbo gang who have been despatched by their boss Skullobey (Takiguchi) to find all four pieces of the legendry Skull Stone.


 
Review: The career path of director Takashi Miike continues to be a fascinating one to chart, especially since he seemingly made the choice to branch out from his roots established with the gore soaked shock and awe of the films which made up his outlaw years and which equally helped him found a strong fanbase amongst Western audiences. While it’s also true that this change of direction which has certainly seen his output get lighter with these later films might have polarised his fanbase he has equally at the same time produced some of the most interesting films of his career of which this is certainly another great example.

Based on the popular anime series of the same name which despite having 108 episodes never seemingly made it over to the rain soaked shores of the UK, so its safe to say I went into this one completely blind with not even the knowledge of Miike being in the director’s chair being any kind of guide after all here we have a director who gave the world both “Ichi The Killer” and “For Love’s Sake”.

Forgoing the traditional superhero movie plotting, Miike clearly believes his audience would be up to speed on the show before they watched the movie as he throws us straight into a big mecha battle between Yatterman (yes they are both called Yatterman) and the Doronbo Gang who have wheeled out their latest mecha invention in the form of a robot chef. It’s a fun opening which essentially sets the tone for what’s to follow as here Miike is clearly in one of his lighter and certainly more playful moods. That’s not of course to say that he still doesn’t manage to sneak in a few screwed up moments, I mean just wait to see what he does with the mecha Bride that the Doronbo gang build in the second half of the film.

The character designs are kept the same as the original show, which is honestly kind of refreshing in these times were since Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy directors constantly seem to be aiming for an element of realism when it comes to directing comic book movies rather than embracing the fantastical elements the genre allows, which is certainly something that Miike has no issues doing as clearly seen with the character design for the members of the Doronbo gang as we have the PVC clad boss Doronjo (Fukada) the rat faced mecha genius and generally lecherous pervert Boyacky (Namase) and rounding out the team we have the pig snout wearing strongman Tonzra (Kobayashi). Despite being so outlandish in their appearance here they strangely work as Miike once again crafts a world for his film to exists within, while at the same time shooting it with such a sense of quirky fun so that like so many aspects of the film you don’t really question it.

One of the moments which truly highlights this is the various get rich schemes that the Doronbo launch to fund their the construction of their latest mecha, which usually share a theme, hence they open a wedding store called “Doro Merry” to fund the construction of the mecha bride “The Bridesmaidiot” or their Yo-Sushi style restaurant they create to fund their giant meca-squid. Interestingly this trio of bumbling crooks we get to know more about than either of our main heroes, in particular their aspirations they hope to gain from their criminal enterprises which you probably won’t be surprised to know are as random as they are, in particular Boyacky’s dream of having every schoolgirl in the world as the film cuts to him buried up to his neck in a mountain of Japanese schoolgirls. Again like so many of the more random aspects of the film it is hard to tell what is taken from the source material and what’s the result of Miike’s warped imagination.

The action scenes throughout are exciting and fast paced, while containing numerous amounts of slapstick and surreal moments, especially when they wheel out the giant mecha with Yatterman’s own mecha coming in the form of a giant robo dog called Yatterwoof which they also use to get around as seen in one of the numerous musical numbers. Aswell as all the giant robot fun we also get some more traditional fight scenes, which usually descend into Boyacky and Tonzra being on the wrong end of the gadgets used by Yatterman. Still these could hardly be considered brutal beatdowns especially when the cartoony vibe is maintained throughout.

While the film is for the most part a lot of fun, it does have a rather generous runtime which certainly could have benefited from being trimmed down to a more lean runtime, especially when there are so many scenes which felt overplayed or unneeded, while at the same time perhaps stopping the plot from becoming as confused as it does in places and while some Miike fans might feel that Miike has lost his edge with these kinds of films which he has been keener to make as of late rather than his earlier and certainly more warped and arguably interesting films, but here he once again proves that even without the lashing of gore and controversial imagery he is still a director capable of producing attention grabbing and most importantly entertaining films, while at the same providing an fun alternative to the overly serious tone that Hollywood would prefer to take for its comic book movies.

Wednesday, 5 November 2014

Safety Not Guaranteed



Title: Safety Not Guaranteed
Director: Colin Trevorrow
Released: 2012
Starring: Aubrey Plaza, Mark Duplass, Jake Johnson, Karan Soni, Jenica Bergere, Mary Lynn Rajskub, Kristen Bell, Jeff Garlin, William Hall, Jr.

Plot: Sent out by “Seattle Magazine” Jeff (Johnson) along with interns Darius (Plaza) and Arnau (Soni) to try and discover more about a curious newspaper classified ad, looking for someone to travel back in time.



Review: Has Aubrey Plaza got a clause in her contract which only allows her characters to be involved with only the creepiest or most irritating characters in he films she appears in. Certainly it would appear to be the case as I was forced to watch her not only dry hump Christopher Mintz-Plasse but also shack up with the terminally vapid Scott Porter in “The To Do List” and now here we get possibly the most unbelievable romance between her character and the oddball behind the ad in question Kenneth (Duplass). Again the reasons behind this bizarre plot direction is almost as confusing as the exceptionally high rating that this film currently holds on Rotten Tomatoes.

Starting off as a mystery piece as the trio try to discover the truth behind the bizarre classified add, which soon leads to Darius becoming the inside girl as she meets up with Kenneth and begins his unorthodox training regime which consists largely of firearm training and running around in the woods, which seemingly is the sort of training that potential time travels needs. As his trust in her grows Kenneth also involves Darius in his raids of the local research facility to steal more equipment for his time machine, as seen in possibly one of the most questionable heists ever, especially when Kenneth seems to be carrying it out based on things he’s seen in the movies, while only made the more surreal when he is caught wheeling out equipment by a stunned group of employees attending a birthday party down the hall from the storage room he has just broken into.

While this is happening we also get the second plotline of Jeff trying to connect with his old girlfriend who lives in the same town as Kenneth, which it ultimately turns out is his sole reason for taking on the assignment originally, which ironically turns out to be a lot more interesting than the main plot line anyway. Needless to say Johnson’s bumbling and frequently crude approach to this personal project really provide most of the films  highpoints even more so when it all inevitably blows up in his face and inturn turning his focus to trying to get the terminally shy Arnau laid.

It is certainly something to question when the subplot of the film is more interesting than the main plot of the story, which is it has to be said largely down to how generally creepy the character of Kenneth is. This isn’t the sort of creepy until you warm up to him, but instead just plain creepy. It’s hard to say if this is down to Duplass’s performance which largely feels devoid of any kind of emotion making the sudden romance between him and Darius only all the more forced, while I can only challenge you not to roll your eyes at the clumsy seduction scene.

It’s kind of shame that this film fails to be more enjoyable, especially when the cast seem to really care about the film they are making with Johnson being the real standout here as he brings to the film the same energy he brings to his more recognisable role as Nick on “New Girl” and while here it essentially is him giving us more of the same, it is still an enjoyable performance and one which distracts from some of the more negative aspects of the film. Elsewhere Plaza comes off more hit and miss as we wheels out her trademark permanently moody style which as with “The To Do List” doesn’t exactly work when you’re trying to build a romantic connection between characters while at the same time making me wonder if despite her talent that she wouldn’t be better kept to playing supporting characters rather than taking on these leading roles?

The ending of the film while some might appreciate the fantastical direction it takes the film, for me ultimately felt kind of flat and almost as if director Trevorrow was challenging the audience for ever doubting Kenneth in the first place. However for this to have work we should have atleast been given some indication that he could actually pull off his time travel claims, rather than being lead unquestionably down the path of believing that he is just a delusional crazy loon.

Despite this being a heavily flawed film it would certainly seem that someone high up liked it seeing how Trevorrow is currently directing the forth “Jurassic Park” movie “Jurassic World” after attempts to remake another time travel classic “Flight of the Navigator” fell through though as of the time of writing it remains to be seen if he works better under the restraints of the mainstream system than he does when given the freedom that the indie scene provides.

Saturday, 1 November 2014

Adventures in Podcasting #1

 
Recently I have had a real burst of podcasting activity and rather than just post a heap of announcements for these posts I've decided instead to pool them all together in one big old boxset of podcast goodness.


 
 
 
 
As regular readers of the blog will know I recently launched the "Mad, Bad and Downright Strange Showcase" with the aim of working though the whole 1001 film introduction to cult and obscure cinema which the list provides. 
 
For those of you also wanting to chart your own progress, you can also find the list now in a much more user friendly form at Letterboxd
 
Kicking things off for the premier episode was my good friend and fellow blogger Emily Intravia (The Deadly Doll's House of Horror Nonsense / The Feminine Critique) were she shared her thoughts on "Starship Troopers"
 


For Episode 2 I was joined by director Carl Bachmann who stopped off not only to talk about the kickstarter campaign to help fund the indie comedy horror "Party Slashers", but also to discuss his theories for the truly random killer tyre movie "Rubber"


 
Episode 3 saw Head Editor / Writer for "French Toast Sunday" Lindsay Street taking on a double bill as we looked not only at Rian Johnson's Neo-noir "Brick" but also Sam Mendes directorial debut and one of Lindsay's all time favourites "American Beauty"





The LAMBcast is really the podcast which started it all for me and since my first podcast with them discussing "Ghost World" I have as you can see below tried to podcast with them when I can.

LAMBCAST #230 - Ghost World

LAMBCAST #232 - Whatcha Been Watchin' Lately - TV Edition

LAMBCAST #234 - Sin City A Dame To Kill For

LAMBCAST #239 - Audition

LAMBCAST #242 - Halloween Franchise Lookback

This last one is a real biggie and while clocking in at over two hours of fanboy rabidness was a lot of fun to record, while looking at the high points and the serious lows the series has been through over the course of the ten films from John Carpenter's classic original film through the Rob Zombies attempts to reboot the franchise.


Bubbawheat at "Flights, Tights and Movie Nights" hosts a great podcast were he gives his guest a comic book movie they haven't seen and in return you get to give him a film to watch which he hasn't seen.

For my turn incase you can't guess from the groovy (and kind of creepy) poster he gave me "The Dark Knight" to watch (I know shame on me) while I gave him the underrated psychological thriller "Perfect Blue"

Filmwhys #38 - Perfect Blue and The Dark Knight

Filmwhys Extra #17 - Nolan's Batman Trilogy




Tuesday, 28 October 2014

Stray Cat Rock: Delinquent Girl Boss



Title: Stray Cat Rock: Delinquent Girl Boss
Director: Yasuharu Hasebe
Released: 1970
Starring: Akiko Wada, Meiko Kaji, Koji Wada, Bunjaku Han, Yuka Kemari, Hanako Tokachi, Yuko Shimazu, Yuka Ohashi, Miki Yanagi, Toshimitsu Shima, George Fujita, Ken Sanders, Tatsuya Fuji, Yosui Inoue

Plot: When tough girl biker Ako (Wada) randomly gives Mei (Kaji) the leader of the all-girl gang “The Stray Cats” a ride she soon finds herself recruited to join their ranks. Meanwhile Mei’s boyfriend Michio (Wada) is trying to join the right-wing nationalist group “The Seiyu Group” who in turn are soon set on a collision course with the Stray Cats when they unwittingly interfere in the outcome of a fixed boxing match.


 
Review: The first film in the “Stray Cat Rock” or “Alley Cat Rock” series of films created originally by Nikkatsu studios to rival Toei Studios “Delinquent Boss” series, while at the same time drawing inspiration from the Roger Corman biker movies like “The Wild Angels”. At the same time the studio bosses were keen to cash in Wada’s popularity as a singer, only for her co-star Meiko Kaji to become the bigger draw and turning the four films which followed into a vehicle for her talent while at the same time forming the start of her legacy as one of the cinema’s toughest leading ladies. More so when she followed the series with both the “Female Convict Scorpion” and “Lady Snowblood” series of films which she made with Toei studios after Nikkatsu studios moved into making films for the “Pink film” market following the end of the Stray Cat series, even developing their own brand of these films branded “Roman Porno” which combined scenes of softcore pornography, S&M and graphic violence.

It is quite a shame that Wada didn’t return to the series as here she is effortlessly cool as the tough biker Ako and more so perhaps because of her largely androgynous style which sees her frequently being mistaken for a man, especially when she’s in her biker gear, that she lost some of her appear especially when placed alongside the more feminine styled Kaji. The styling of the characters throughout the film though ensures that the film has a real time capsule feel, even more so with its psych-rock soundtrack.

Fans of tough ladies though will find much to enjoy here, as the members of the Stray Cats are unquestionably more than capable of holding their own in a fight, as we see right from the start as they find themselves in a knife fight against a rival girl gang while soon seeing off the rival gang’s boyfriend’s aswell! While the levels of violence here might not be nowhere near what we would see with the later films in Kaji’s career especially when compared to the likes of the “Female Convict Scorpion” series but the sporadic moments we get here are still highly effective.
 
The pacing is for the most part kept pretty tight with the whole film unfolding over the course of two days, with helpful flashing cue cards helping to highlight the passage of time while the plot itself is kept for the most part is quite straightforward and typical exploitation fare and more about the lead up to the final showdown between the Stray Cats and The Seiyu Group which takes the form of a madcap chase motorcycle chase sequence which soon becomes more about director Hasebe trying to find ever more random locations to take the chase scene through as Gang boss Katsuya (Fuji) chases after Ako in his dune buggy. A dune buggy it would seem that has no difficulty getting through narrow corridors, driving through shopping malls or even going up and down numerous flights of stairs.

On the downside the group remain largely undeveloped outside of Ako and Mei with the others members not getting anything in the way of development much like the members of the Seiyu who are essentially just a bunch of goons to be dispatched. Not that this matters much of course seeing how the film largely at times feels like  a collection of interesting scenes loosely strung together with simplistic plotting and occasional bursts of ultra violence but it still makes for an entertaining watch, especially with the fun chase finale let alone the groovy soundtrack which surprisingly doesn't date the film in a particularly bad way. Still if your a fan of feisty females or looking for a light entry point to the Pinky Violence genre then this could be it.

Tuesday, 21 October 2014

Man of Tai Chi



Title: Man of Tai Chi
Director: Keanu Reeves
Released: 2013
Starring: Tiger Hu Chen, Keanu Reeves, Karen Mok, Hai Yu, Qing Ye, Simon Yam, Iko Uwais

Plot: Tiger Chen (Chen) a Tai Chi student who despite his master’s concerns uses his training to compete in martial arts tournaments. However when the temple where he trains is threatened with demolition, he finds himself fighting for money in an underground fight club run by the mysterious Donaka (Reeves).



Review: I don’t think when Keanu Reeves announced that he was making his first foray into directing that it would be a foreign language martial arts movie but here he does just that with a decidedly less is more approach, while to an extent creating a showcase the talents of his friend and martial arts trainer Tiger Hu Chen.
 
Reportedly based events in Chen’s life even if the facts surrounding such claims are limited to say the least, here Reeves keeps things decidedly simple with a more is less attitude as he builds around spectacular fight scenes provided courtesy of the legendry action director Yeun Woo-Ping while keeping a strong focus on the action rather than trying to pad things out with unneeded drama.

Similar in many ways to the original idea for “Ring of Steel” in that it is a story of the corrupting power of money, fame and success; as while setting out with an honest and pure goal of saving his temple, the success Tiger achieves fighting in these underground contest and the rewards that they bring soon causes him to lose track of the reason he is fighting to begin with, while at the same time having the interesting effect of making his fighting style increasingly more violent and brutal the further into this world he is drawn.

While the film follows the usual fighting tournament format with Tiger facing a seemingly endless line of opponents, each with their own unique fighting style including “The Raid” leading man Iko Uwais as it leads to the inevitable showdown with Donaka. What makes it so different is the setup for each fight, which is not the usual ring surrounded by rich invited guests cheering and sipping Champaign but often just a plain room while Donaka watches on from behind mirror glass panels or via the large TV screen in his office and essentially gives the idea that the sole reason that Donaka is doing any of this is solely so that he can have the his own live action version of “Mortal Kombat”. An idea only further reinforced by the announcement to “Fight” and even the command to “Finish Him” popping up and usually followed by a black mask wearing Donaka doing the honours when his fighters inevitably bottle it when given such a command, seemingly only happy to beat their opponent to a bloody pulp but not finish the job.

Donaka though is a fascinating if at time slightly cardboard villain and one suits Reeve’s eternally laid back style, while it is an interesting change of pace to see Reeve playing a villain again, with “The Watcher” being the only other occasion that he has played anything other than a variation on his usual good guy role. Still here his chilled out style only adds to his character who maintains a zen like cool through to the end were he seems to be taking notes from the Nicolas Cage school of acting including the bear trap grin which bizarrely make an appearance while he’s having the holy hell beaten out of him by Tiger. Its unclear though if Reeve’s took on this role to further the budget or because he genuinely felt like playing the bad guy for a change of pace. Despite being nowhere near the level of Tiger Chan, their relationship off screen as Reeve’s martial arts trainer ensure that the end fight scene still works well with

While the film might have worked well as just a straightforward tournament movie, the film also follows the feisty Hong Kong Police officer Sun-Jin Shi (Mok) who is currently trying to investigate Donaka only to find her undercover fighters keep getting discovered and disposed off before we can arrest him while her refusal to give up on the case makes only further makes her the ire of Superintendent Wong (Yam). Mok’s character here makes for an interesting sub-plot and helps to fill in the background for Donaka even if her link to Tiger just remain frustratingly underused and only really comes together out of convenience to the plot rather than the major plot line it should have been when Tiger agrees to become a mole for Shi’s investigation after the true reality of his situation becomes apparent.

Unquestionably though the real selling point are the frequently inventive fight scenes which are every bit the intended showcase of Tiger Chen’s obvious talent, while the range of styles on offer only help to keep things interesting especially when Chen starts letting his darker side take over more and more. At the same time Reeves manages to pull out several surprising fight locations including one ring which not only comes with a groovy blacklight theme but also has a surprise strobe light effect which kicks in when the fight starts to tip in Chen’s favour, though honestly this experiment kind of failed as while it looks pretty, the movement of the actors only comes off erratic when put under the strobe. Despite this slight misstep Reeve shows a clear love of the genre especially with the involvement of Yeun Woo-Ping’s much sort after skills as an action director only further helping this film stand out from the numerous questionable entries that the DTV market has seen a recent influx of with the film unquestionably being a vast improvement over the likes of “Tekken” and the frustratingly hit and miss “Ninja”.

While this might not be high art film making it’s still an incredibly enjoyable film and one which raises plenty of questions as to where Reeve’s will go for his next film especially when a large part of me would more than happily see him give us more of the same, much like Tiger Chan who while he might not currently at the time of writing have anything on his release slate is certainly a talent worth following.

Saturday, 18 October 2014

So I Launched A Podcast!





Over the last couple of months I have been making appearances on both "The LAMBcast" as well as "Filmwhy" podcasts having decided to bite the bullet after wasting far too much time saying I wanted to do podcasting but not actually doing anything about it. Needless to say I have had a blast doing these podcasts and through them have met some great bloggers, while getting to chat with others who until now the only contact I've had was through either e-mail or comments on each others posts.

So now I've decided to throw my hat into the podcasting ring by launching my own podcast which in turn will tie into what we started with the 1001 film introduction to cult and obscure cinema I created with a number of other bloggers when we put together the "Mad, Bad and Downright Strange" list. The idea for the podcast now being to work through the list and cover each film, while getting the chance to discuss them with likeminded bloggers / film junkies. The podcast also aiming to build on the showcase feature I ran over on the site for the list.




So together with Emily from "The Deadly Doll's House of Horror Nonsense"  and "The Feminine Critique" we recorded the pilot show which is now available on PodOmatic for your listening pleasure were we looked at "Starship Troopers".



Of course I appreciate any feedback that you guys and gals have to offer and especially would love to hear if you'd like to be involved and come on discuss some great and frequently random cinema.

Saturday, 11 October 2014

The Devil's Double



Title: The Devil’s Double
Director: Lee Tamahori
Released: 2011
Starring: Dominic Cooper, Philip Quast, Ludivine Sagnier, Mimoun Oaissa, Raad Rawi, Mem Ferda, Dar Salim, Khalid Laith, Pano Masti, Nasser Memarzia, Tiziana Azzpardi, Akin Gazi, Amrita Acharia

Plot: Iraq 1987, Latif Yahia (Cooper) a soldier finds himself recuited to become a “Fedal” (body double” for Uday Hussein (also Cooper) the son of the Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein (Quast).



Review: Lee Tamahori is hardly a director who springs up on anyone’s favourite director list, despite memorably launching his directing career with the powerful “Once Were Warriors” it's been a series of disappointments which followed in its wake while he managed to single handily kill both the “XXX” franchise (not even Wilem Dafoe could save that sequel) and for awhile the “James Bond” franchise with the disappointing series tribute “Die Another Day” while the less said about “Next” the better really. Needless to say I wasn’t sure what to expect from this film, while sees Tamahori moving away from action cinema and back to his drama roots.

While it might claim to be based on a true story, the facts have been frequently disputed since the film’s release, mainly due to lack any actual evidence that Latif Yahia had any connection to Uday Hussein let alone the kind of access to the higher levels of Saddam’s regime as the film depicts. This however does not stop it from being a fascinating story and a highly enjoyable one to boot thanks largely to the phenomenal double act pulled by Cooper as both Latif and Uday. At the same time Latif and Uday are fascinating characters in their own respects with Latif being forced into new role as a Fedal, rather than willingly excepting the role with his first refusal seeing him imprisoned and tortured and ultimately only agrees to take on the role after being informed that his family will be tortured and killed if he doesn’t agree. It is an almost begrudging sense of duty which he takes on the role. Uday on the other hand lives a “Scarface” style lifestyle thanks to the unlimited wealth and power he is afforded as the son of Saddam. At the same time he also enjoys a highly deviant lifestyle of hovering up vast quantities of cocaine, picking up school girls of the street and frequently being prone of burst of psychotic violence which it would seem is none too different than his real life counterpart.

Much like “Scarface” this is equally a film with a focus on gross excess both in terms of wealth aswell as in violence as Latif frequently bears witness to Uday’s life as a playboy gangster which he in turn he is forced to become a part of , while Uday views him as his brother and an object he has created while deluding himself into thinking that he has control over Latif, even though Latif is constantly looking for a way out which won’t endanger his face who have been left believing that he has been killed in the war. While the main focus on the story might be on this thread like bond between Latif and Uday, the film also takes time to follow the relationship between Latif and his advisor let alone the closest thing he has to a friend inside of the regime Munem (Rawi) who like Latif is equally disgusted by what he is forced to bar witness to yet at the same time continues his duties with a sense of grim numbness. At the same time he is frequently a source of sound advice for Latif even if you’re never sure were his loyalty truly lies, more so when he never seems to really side with either party throughout the course of the film.

Still if things are not complex enough a further twist is thrown into the mix with Sarrab (Sagnier), Uday’s lover and the one person who could prove to the breaking point in the fragile arrangement between Latif and Uday as she soon starts showing an interest in Latif with the two soon carrying on a relationship in secret. This however like so many aspects of the film was seemingly included in the more fictional elements which have drawn most of the criticism for the film especially when so much of the film can’t be proven or would appear to have been based on real life events such as the jealous slaying of Saddam’s bodyguard Kamel Hana (Ferda) by an enraged Uday.

The other criticism about the film is the levels of violence which while sporadic frequently burst into cartoonish levels of gore as with the aforementioned killing of Kamel Hana while providing yet another reason to compare it to “Scarface”. At the same time the violence is never excessively over used and often feels in context even if the tone of the film is far from the serious biographical film that I think a lot of the detractors were expecting it to be.

Unlike his more recent output Tamahori here proves that he can still craft a gripping drama even if falls more between the worlds of his brutally dark debut and the more action orientated later latter films. This is still a great film and even while it might be factually questionable in places, its strong characters and visual styling which includes a memorable scene of Saddam playing tennis against his double this film gives us hope that he’s still capable of producing memorable cinema, while at the time of writing it remains to be seen if he continues on this track or returns to more mainstream fare.
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