Wednesday, 19 April 2017

The Shallows



Title: The Shallows
Director: Jaume Collet-Serra
Released: 2016
Starring: Blake Lively, Oscar Jaenada, Brett Cullen, Sedona Legge, Angelo Jose Lozano Corzo, Jose Manuel Trujillo, Pablo Calva, Diego Espejel, Janelle Bailey

Plot: Struggling to deal with the loss of her mother to cancer medical student Nancy (Lively) travels to the same secluded beach in Mexico her mother had visited. However when she is attacked by a large great white shark, she finds herself stranded 200 yards from the shore while being stalked by the relentless shark.


Review: Director Jaume Collet-Serra really is a director whose work its hard to place as while he’s given us films such as “Orphan” and “Non-Stop” he’s also the same director responsible for giving us the likes of “Goal 2: Living The Dream” and the “House of Wax” remake which so memorably was sold on the prospect of seeing Paris Hilton die. As such your never really sure what your going to get from him and while the concept and trailer for the film really gave it all the potential of being another disposable summer release this film thankfully really isn’t.

Stripping the film down to its key elements here Collet-Serra really crafts something surprisingly special as he seemingly knows that the real heart of the film lies in the battle between Nancy and the shark currently standing between her and the shore... and that’s essentially it. This is also what appealed to Lively who was drawn to the project when she saw the similarities between this film and her husband Ryan Reynolds “Buried”.

True it might be a big shark which continually torments Nancy but this at the same time this isn’t some gigantic creature with super intelligence, which makes this already miles better than the countless shark movies which have continually attempted and failed to top what Steven Spielberg achieved with “Jaws”. The shark here instead is designed with a much more natural behaviour for the most part with Collet-Serra really only letting it off the leash in the build up to the finale. As such the shark only attacks Nancy initially when she stumbles into its hunting ground, while her injuries only serve to maintain its interest in her.

Despite the fact that Blake Lively has hardly set my world on fire with her previous performances which always felt that she was getting by on just being the token pretty girl rather than anything resembling dramatic talent and yet she is fantastic here, especially when its a role that requires her to act by herself for about 90% of the film though she does get a seagull (nicknamed Steven Seagull by Lively) to chat with. While this sounds like kind of a drag here it actually works as we get scenes such as Nancy treating any time she has to perform first aid on herself like she is treating a patient, which sees her talking her way through each procedure which largely consist of short term solutions she can cobble together on the fly.

Seeing how Nancy only has her wet suit, jewellery and a strap from her obliterated surfboard to help her, its fascinating to see how she deals with a situation which only continues to get worse for her especially with the clock continually ticking down to high tide. This of course means we do get some cringy moments such as her pinning a leg wound together using earrings and her necklace and it surprised me to see how willing Lively was to play a character who is essentially brutalised by the elements for the film, especially when she does all her own stunt work here outside of the few moment of surfing which were handled by pro surfer Isabella Nichols who also taught Lively some of the surfing basics such as how to Wax the board and attach a leg rope to give it more of an air of authenticity.

Outside of the survival aspect of the story we also get brief asides to her family as her father questions her decision to drop out of medical school after her mothers death, while her younger sister only further cements the impression we get of her home life. We also get passing interactions with a pair of fellow surfers and her local guide which while they serve to provide potential saviours for her its soon clear that its going to fall to Nancy to get herself out of the situation.

By keeping the shark for the most part for the final quarter it really helps build a sense of creeping dread throughout the film. At the same time while it might be a CGI shark it is still miles ahead of the phoney looking CGI that the Asylum / Sci-fi have been lumbering their productions with and it makes for an effective threat by the production not skimping on this element, especially as we all know how a cheap effect can quickly deflate a production of any tension gained in its build up.

One of the big surprises of the 2016 release schedule this is a film certainly worth seeking out, especially for Shark movie fans left craving the same kind of thrills that “Deep Blue Sea” delivered. At the same time its tight plotting and brief run time stop it outstaying its welcome or becoming too outlandish.

Sunday, 16 April 2017

King Kong Escapes



Title: King Kong Escapes
Director: Ishiro Honda
Released: 1967
Starring: Rhodes Reason, Akira Takarada, Linda Miller, Eisei Amamoto, Mie Hama, Yoshiumi Tajima, Nadao Kirino, Shoichi Hirose, Haruo Najajima, Yu Sekida

Plot: Evil scientist Dr. Who (Amamoto) has created his own robot version of King Kong called Mechani-Kong which he plans to use to dig for “Element X” in the North pole only to find that the radiation emitted by Element X shuts down his creation. Meanwhile Commander Nelson (Reason) and his crew have discovered Kong living on Mondo Island who Dr.Who now plots to use to dig out the Element X by hypnotising the giant ape to do his bidding.
 
Review: One of the numerous overlooked King Kong titles / cash in titles with this one seeing Toho studios who’d previously obtained the King Kong licence for “King Kong Vs. Godzilla” and which despite being a box office success Toho hadn’t exactly rushed to follow it up until this film for which they teamed up bizarely with the American production company Rankin / Bass who are no doubt best known for their Christmas specials despite putting out several giant monster / dinosaur features such as “The Last Dinosaur” and “The Bermuda Depths”.

Drawing inspiration from the Rankin / Bass saturday morning cartoon “The King Kong Show” which saw the giant ape saving the world from various aliens, mad scientists and other monsters. This of course makes for the perfect source material for director Ishiro Honda especially as it puts Kong more in line with the likes of Godzilla who at this point was engaging in his own world saving antics. Working with the other three “Godzilla Fathers” producer Tomoyuki Tanaka, composer Akira Ifukube and most key special effects by the legendary Eiji Tsuburaya which is no doubt why this film appeals to my Kaiju fanboy side especially with Honda hardly deviating from his usual Godzilla format, Ifukube even recycles some of his Godzilla themes to great effect here.

If anything could be said about this film is that it really wastes no time in getting to the monster action as we are barely 20 mins into the film before we get to not only see Kong for the first time but also Gorosaurus who makes his Toho debut in this film and despite being killed by Kong would make a miraculous recovery for his more prominent appearance in “Destroy All Monsters”. We also get to see Kong battle a sea serpent who looks strangely similar to Manda.

Despite Tsuburaya handling the special effects, the Kong suit is still an awkward Kaiju reworking which is only slightly better than the one we saw in “King Kong Vs. Godzilla”. Of course that being said it is still miles ahead of some of the awful giant ape costumes we got in the Kong knock offs like “A.P.E.” and “Queen Kong”. Here Tsuburaya really appears to be trying to tap into the more human side of Kong as seen through the overly sympathetic eyes which serve to make him more humane than any kind of monstrous threat, though he just looks down right dopey when he gets hypnotised by “Dr. Who”. The Mechani-Kong on the other hand looks fantastic, even if its movements sound like a disco siren.

Of course the reason we are all here is to see Kong face off against his mechi-counterpart and while it might be kept for the finale its well worth the wait as the pair battle it out while hanging off the Tokyo tower. Interestingly despite being in Tokyo Kong actually chooses not to destroy anything….unlike Mechani-Kong who mere minutes of arriving in Tokyo is busy smashing building. Why Kong chooses to head to Tokyo from the North pole is unclear much like how he manages to get there so quick after escaping Dr. Who’s secret base which appears like the henchmen uniforms to have been recycled from “You Only Live Twice”

The plot itself is kind of nonsensical aswell as just downright sexist in places with Commander Nelson having an unexplained past with the villainous Dr. Who which causes the second half of the film to grind its gears in places as Dr. Who tries to win over Commander Nelson to his cause even employing the charms of Madame Piranha played here former Bond girl Mie Hama whose country of origin which she is supposed to be representing is kept a mystery as one of the more random running themes of the film as characters origins are frequently questioned. The film also borrows elements from the original “King Kong” with Susan (Miller) essentially playing the Fay Wray role as Kong falls for her meaning that she is able to control him, when not constantly being kidnapped by him or his Mechi counterpart meaning we get to see a lot of footage of a questionable looking doll standing in for her.

Considering when this film was made Ishiro Honda was Toho’s go to director for their Kaiju movies not only through his heavy involvement with the Showa era of the Godzilla movies, but also introducing the world to the likes of “Rodan” and “Mothra” with their stand alone films and to this extent this version of Kong perfectly fits in this unofficial Kaiju universe that Toho were making with these films and which Honda would essentially bring together with “Destroy All Monsters” the following year.

A fun Kaiju movie which brings a fun spin to King Kong mythos which is certainly a lot more enjoyable than some of the entries in the apesploitation genre. At the same time its quick passing and generally fun kaiju action makes this one worth giving a look if only for some throwaway fun viewing.

Tuesday, 11 April 2017

Police Story 4: First Strike



Title: Police Story 4: First Strike
Director: Stanley Tong
Released: 1996
Starring: Jackie Chan, Jackson Lou, Annie Wu, Bill Tung, Yuriy Petrov, Nonna Grishayeve, Terry Woo, Ailen Sit, Nathan Jones

Plot: Recuited by the CIA, Insp. Chan (Chan) to follow leads connected to a nuclear smuggling case, only to soon find himself on the trail of a missing nuclear warhead.

Review: Despite being the forth entry in Jackie Chan’s legendry “Police Story” franchise you really don’t need to have seen the previous three to enjoy this film and hence why it was sold to western audiences as just “First Strike” giving it the illusion of being a stand alone film especially to cash in on the success of “Rumble In The Bronx” which had introduced Chan finally to audiences not familiar with the Hong Kong cinema.

While this film takes perhaps alittle longer than his other films to get going with Chan engaging in some espionage antics before giving us the first of the films big set pieces on the snowy mountains of the Ukraine with Chan wearing little more than a humorous seal hat for warmth chases after a suspect and it what really sets the tone for the film as here we get to see Chan really working at the height of his powers as certainly highlighted by the now legendary ladder fight sequence whose painful screw ups really only demonstrate just how good Chan and his stunt team are. Its during the traditional mistake reel in the credits and you also see that Chan really wasn’t wearing anything remotely warm during the mountain sequences when snowboarding or being thrown into icy water that you may find yourself questioning the general sanity of Chan to put himself through such things.

Perhaps to the benefit of Chan for doing all those snow sequences the majority of the film takes place in Australia were he soon finds himself caught up with the sister of the suspect he’s been pursuing Annie here played by Annie Wu in her film debut. Of course the general plot is pretty thin and this is especially the case with her character whose only real purpose is to play the damsel in distress while the fact she works at the aquarium really is just to setup the finale. This isn’t a major issue thanks to the general charm of Chan’s performance aswell as the fact that most viewers will be here for the stunts and fights than the plot.

This is a great film for newcomers thanks to the light-hearted plot let alone how frequently ludicrious it is to have a film which features an aquarium of man eating sharks and a final showdown which takes place underwater. This of course is largely thanks to Chan’s performance as he’s essentially the every man rather than the bad ass, its just he also happens to be a martial arts master. At the same time he taps into the same slapstick action energy of Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd especially with the fight scenes being focused on using the environment around him and making one movement flow into the next. There is no better example of this than in this film when he is attempting to escape from a pair of Russian thugs, one being played by man mountain Nathan Jones.

As I mentioned already the action is really the star of the show here and while it might not top what we’ve seen in the previous three films in the saga it is still inventive and unquestionably better than his current output were its clear as he’s getting older he’s less willing to maim himself for his art especially when those bones don’t heal as quick as they used to, but hey this is the guy whose had so many injuries that he can no longer get insurance so you can hardly fault him for wanting to take it easier in these later years of his career. As such its fun to see a film like this when he was wanting to take those risks. Here Chan is clearly trying to give the audience something they haven't seen before which might explain the underwater fight finale, while the snowboard chase and the apartment escape which sees Chan repeatedly running into closed windows all make for fun highlights.

Frustratingly all the releases of this film bar the Japanese DVD are missing 21 mins from the film, while also dubbed which is less of an issue considering the style of film, but you would think that by now we would be able to get the original version of this film which sadly is still not an option.

A fun entry in the “Police Story” saga though while perhaps not the best film of this period it is still miles better from his current output, while providing the perfect start point for the newcomers to his extensive body of work.

Saturday, 8 April 2017

Imperium



Title: Imperium
Director: Daniel Ragussis
Released: 2016
Starring: Daniel Radcliffe, Toni Collette, Tracy Letts, Devin Druid, Pawel Szajda, Nestor Carbonell, Sam Trammell

Plot: FBI agent Nate Foster (Radcliffe) is sent undercover as a neo-Nazi when it is suspected that a white supremacist group is plotting an attack.

Review: I’m not sure if its just me but I’m sure that the career paths of both Daniel Radcliffe and Elijah Wood if put side by side would pretty much match up with both coming to the attention of the general movie going public through blockbusters before moving into more indie productions and arguably producing some of the best work of their respective careers with Elijah Wood giving us the likes of “Grand Piano” and “Maniac” after the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy while Daniel Radcliffe only continues to make the Harry Potter years seem like a distant memory as he’s matured as an actor let alone showing the same kind of ballsy role picking with films like this and “Swiss Army Man” that helped Joseph Gordon Levitt become such a darling of the indie scene.

Of course when you think of Neo-Nazi’s I’m sure that Radcliffe’s name would be way down the list of potential actors but then that was one of the main things which drew me to this film, after all this is a the kind of role which has become synonymous with the performances given by the likes of Edward Norton and Russell Crowe as well as perhaps to a lesser extent Ryan Gosling. Yet somehow Radcliffe pulls off the role playing up the lack of believability to extraordinary effect.

Based on the career of former undercover FBI agent Michael German who wrote the script with director Daniel Raguissis who makes his feature debut with this film. German over the course of his career spent time undercover with both supremacists and right-wing militants which brings some legitimacy to the always dubious “Based on real events” title card the film opens with.

When Radcliffe’s FBI agent Foster is introduced during the arrest of a terrorist suspect were he is pushed to the background of the arrest while his superiors claim the credit for his work. At the same time Foster is shown as being something of an intellectual loner as he spends his evenings drinking expensive wine, listening to Brahm’s and sharing his meals with a book. However this seemingly makes him the perfect candidate for going undercover it would seem in the eyes of Agent Zamparo (Collette) who is investigating the involvement of white supremacist groups in the theft of caesium-137 which could be turned into a dirty bomb. The fact that Foster is such an unlikely candidate for undercover work, let alone to imitate a neo-nazi is seemingly what makes him perfect for such an operation seeing how many members of these organisations share a similar upbringing as Foster.

This idea that people’s direction in life being affected by their life experiences really plays an under lying theme throughout the film, before being highlighted again at the closing. At the same time the film equally suffers from going through the usual motions of these kinds of movies as we get the initial introduction to the hotheaded agitators while the elder figure making all the big claims turns out to be far from the person they claim to be. We do however get some interesting moments scattered throughout which do bring some unique aspects to the story such as a gathering being held in a quiet suberban neighbourhood hosted by white collar family man Gerry (Trammell) were the guest all seem like regular upstanding members of society despite the fact that one of the wives has brought Swastika topped cupcakes reminding the audience that not all supremacist look the same.

The character of Gerry is another cliché aspect to the story in which we get the Neo-Nazi who can justify his love of Jewish conductors or black music and its the kind of character who turns up time and time again and perhaps its down to the enjoyable performance given by Trammell that it wasn’t such an eye rolling cliché moment here. Gerry though provides for Foster one of the few seeming safe harbours when surrounded by members of the various groups threatening to reveal his true identity, while their shared interests and similar personalities make for a genuine friendship which leaves you wondering if he’s getting too involved with the people he’s supposed to be investigating.

Crafting a tightly plotted story there is little hanging around with the plot while the tension is kept high throughout as doubt is constantly being cast on the different aspects of his story. While Radcliffe might not seem like the most intimidating actor, here it really works to his advantage with the path they choose to take with his character so that you never get the feeling of implausibility like we got when Elijah Wood tried to play a football hooligan in the dire “Green Street”.

On the downside the final act feels kind of forced and rushed and really could have done with having more time to breathe than the sudden introduction of new conspirators to the plot, while Foster rushes around to defuse a dirty bomb plot. While it does have some tense moments such as trying to pass off fake chemicals, it just all needs more time to develop especially when the journey to this point has been so great its frustrating to see such a rushed climax.

A fantastic indie thriller that approaches the Neo Nazi material in perhaps a more subtle way than the superior “American History X” or “Romper Stomper” but this is still a great indie thriller well worth checking out.

Wednesday, 5 April 2017

Boxset Binge #8 - Wanna Be The Strongest In The World



As of the time of writing we have just wrapped up another “Wrestlemania” which if your a wrestling fan is one of those events you wait all year for and with the WWE going all out to ramp up the spectacle its also one of the few shows even people who don’t usually watch wrestling the rest of the year will tune in for. With this in mins what better time to check out this wrestling anime.

Featuring one of the more random plot lines I’ve encountered as Haguwara Sakura a member of the girl / Idol group “Sweet Diva” decides to take revenge against the wrestler Rio who insulted her and her fellow idols by challenging her to a wrestling match. Arguably not the brightest of plans as she soon discovers herself with Rio easily beating her in their match. Now rather than just write off the whole experience Sakura instead decides to become a pro-wrestler and begins training with the all female wrestling company “Berserk” so that she can challenge Rio to a rematch.

Classified as an “Ecchi” anime which for those not up on your anime terminology means that its essentially a Softcore Hentai so big on fan service but without any of the uncomfortable sex scenes which lets face it a lot of the uninitiated assume that all anime is about. Still it would have perhaps would have been nice to get some kind of warning about what exactly I was going to get into as the fan service levels throughout this series are gratuitous to say the least.

Sakura is an instantly likeable lead for the series especially as she approaches everything with such a positive slant which really comes in handy for her especially when she spends the first half of the series being beaten down and forced to submit by every opponent she faces, with one of the commentators noting her losing streak of over 60 losses and yet somehow her devoted fans still continue to cheer her on, which lets face it regardless of if your the most lovable jobbler its hard to think that any audience is still going to be cheering for you when your rocking that kind of losing streak.

Entering into a gruelling training regime though Sakura is soon learning such valuable wrestling lessons as how to escape from submission holds and find a finishing move, all things that you would have thought that she would have figured out before stepping in the ring rather than seemingly just trying to wing it as a professional wrestler as seems to be her plan for the first half. Of course in the best sporting drama tradition by the time we are into the second half she is essentially a wrestling pro and able to defeat any of the grizzled pro’s who cross her path as the series build up to her matches against the world champion wrestler Jackal as well as the mysterious masked wrestler “Blue Panther”.

One of the strangest aspects of the show is how wrestling isn’t portrayed as a pre-determined contest but instead here is shown as an actual physical contest of fighting ability. Sure you still have to pin or make you opponent submit but seemingly no one is pulling any punches and also the reason that Sakura amasses such a losing streak as no sadist booker could really schedule her to loose that much. The actual wrestling though is exciting throughout the series though perhaps focusing a tad too much on submission moves which also serve to provide the majority of the fan service here.

Here in lies of the main issues with the series as the fan service here isn’t just the occasional panty shot but lingering crotch shots, while the competitors wrestle in the most flimsy of outfits which they constantly threaten (but never do) to spill out of. This combined with the whimpering cries of pain frequently coming from Sakura really can leave you feeling kind of sleazy watching the show, while I know just writing this now that I’m no doubt completely selling this to another sub-section of anime fan, but so is the nature of the beast when it comes to anime.

This is far from the deepest anime out there but at only 12 episodes and it certainly has its flaws such as the overwhelming and arguably unnecessary fan service but it still makes for an enjoyable filler between shows and especially if you can’t face another 112+ episode arc and while it might tease what the prospect of a second season at the time of writing one has yet to happen though personally I would certainly be down for a second round.
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