Sunday, January 29, 2023

Moving Mountain Project: The Wandering Earth II (2023) Review

Director: Frant Gwo

Notable Cast: Andy Lau, Wu Jing, Li Xuejian, Sha Yi, Ning Li, Wang Zhi, Zhu Yan Man Zi

 

Not that most of us can remember a world pre-pandemic at this point, but if you do and you were following the rise in dominance of the Chinese film industry upon the global market - you might remember Frant Gwo’s massive blockbuster hit, The Wandering Earth

 

Unleashed during the Lunar New Year in theaters (yes, even with a limited release here in the US) the film took one of those silly sci-fi concepts and managed to make a film that embraced the Hollywood formulas and style established by Roland Emmerich and Michael Bay. However, it managed to capture the fun of a sci-fi disaster film and embed a ton of heart into the mix. 

 

It’s not all that surprising that a big-budget sequel, The Wandering Earth II, would get greenlit. What is surprising is that not only is it a prequel and not a sequel - a choice that could have easily and horrifically backfired, but it manages to be better than its predecessor in almost every facet. The Wandering Earth II is a science fiction opera that douses its audience with massive spectacle, bold cinematic heroics, and intriguing themes around sacrifice. Yet, it still manages to craft melodrama that sprints the line between corny and tear-drivingly effective while delivering on the white-knuckle disaster spectacle Hollywood made famous in the 1990s. 

 

The Wandering Earth II never wanders. It’s an expertly crafted slice of blockbuster brilliance and, if it’s still in theaters when you read this, you should definitely see it on the biggest screen possible. 

 

Tuesday, January 24, 2023

Do You See What Eye See: The Third Eye (1966) Review [Gothic Fantastico: Four Italian Tales of Terror Box Set]

Director: Mino Guerrini

Notable Cast: Franco Nero, Gioia Pascal, Erika Blanc, Olga Solbelli, Marina Morgan, Gara Granda, Richard Hillock, Luciano Foti

 

Arrow Video has delivered another one of those classic box sets they are known for unleashing with their latest: Gothic Fantastico: Four Italian Tales of Terror. Pulling together four films under a common thematic and stylistic aspect, this set contains some 1960s cult cinema finds with brand new 2K restorations, gorgeous packaging, and enough new commentaries, essays, and interviews to impress any movie collector.

 

When Franco Nero’s name pops up at the beginning of a film, it’s hard not to get somewhat excited. Not that he’s always great (or is always cast in great movies), but he easily brings a kind of pop that can sway the tides of a film toward the positive. 

 

Yet, despite the relatively strong word of mouth online in places like Letterboxd, The Third Eye is a substantially mixed experience - even within the films contained in this Gothic Fantastico box set. The first act is cheesy melodrama through and through and while the film does strengthen as it goes, it’s a film that needs a lot of forgiveness to buy into its style and story. For those willing to give in to its over-the-top elements, it’s a decent killer thriller with a third act that helps punch through some of its more mundane scripting aspects. 

 

Monday, January 23, 2023

Go to Sleep: Skinamarink (2023) Review

Director: Kyle Edward Ball

Notable Cast: Lucas Paul, Dali Rose Tetreault, Ross Paul, Jaime Hill

 

When a film leaks online, it often spells for sabotaged release schedules, loss of money, and a skewed marketing campaign. Working on the fringes of the industry, I’ve seen it capsize some films - particularly independent ones. Yet, there’s always the anomaly where this kind of piracy oddly benefits the film. Skinamarink, coming to y’all from genre stalwarts IFC Midnight and Shudder, is one that seemingly took a massive technical error that leaked the film online and turned itself into an internet urban legend. 

 

The combination of mixed word of mouth from its film festival appearances about its suffocatingly lo-fi style and unnerving tone and a sudden burst of interest in social media sites like TikTok and Twitter, made it the must-see horror film of the moment. Skinamarink was apt to join the likes of films like Blair Witch Project and Paranormal Activity as an indie film catching mainstream attention for its scare factor. 

 

Although the film is certain to be one of the most divisive films of the year for its choices, it’s understandable why the internet became incredibly latched onto it. Skinamarink is superficially similar to Creepypasta or other experimental horror films that have littered the video services online for the last ten years. It’s toying with the audience’s sense of reality, blending a dreamlike - or more nightmare-like - tonality with abrasive home-videos-from-hell visuals, and it features some distorted and unnerving imagery that is apt to capture the attention of its viewers. 

 

Sunday, January 15, 2023

Go Big or Go Home: Shin Ultraman (2023) Review

Director: Shinji Higuchi

Notable Cast: Takumi Saitoh, Masami Nagasawa, Daiki Arioka, Akari Hayami, Tetushi Tanaka, Hidetoshi Nishijima, Koji Yamamoto, Ryo Iwamatsu, Kyusaku Shimada, Toru Masuoka, Keishi Nagatsuka, Hajime Yamazaki, Soko Wada, Issey Takahashi, Koichi Yamadera, Kenjiro Tsuda

 

Over the last year or so, the Millcreek re-releases of the various Ultraman series have been a staple of my watching. Even more recently, I’ve taken to watching the “first” season of Ultraman every night. One or two episodes just before bed. It’s been blissful. The show is silly without losing its straightforward approach to its material, it’s colorful and creative, and it’s an adventure/science fiction show where the science team doubles as adventurers. The fun Ultraman battles that cap off each episode, where he goes toe to toe with various monsters and aliens, are icing on the proverbial cake. 

 

Ultraman, the alien who fused with a human to become Earth’s protector, has never really left the social consciousness since that 1960s series as it continually evolves with each season and remains on the air and in theaters, but Shin Ultraman represents a fascinating aspect of the cultural icon. It’s both its own stand-alone story, possibly part of its own cinematic universe, and a remake of the previously mentioned original season. It threads the needle with an impeccable nuance, embracing aspects of its 60s origins but embracing enough of a modern aspect to modernize it for a new audience. Also, Shin Ultraman delivers on its promise of delivering kaiju-sized fun while doing it. 

 

Wednesday, January 11, 2023

A Little Robot Girl in a Little Horror World: M3gan (2023) Review

Director: Gerard Johnstone

Notable Cast: Allison Williams, Violet McGraw, Jen Van Epps, Brian Jordan Alvarez, Ronny Chieng, Jenna Davis, Amie Donald

 

An uncanny valley is a fascinating place to be. With the right expectations, a cinematic audience can embrace it and enjoy it for what it is - the horrifying and occasionally humorous place. When it does not work, it’s truly one of the most confusing things to witness. This was the tightrope that M3gan was aiming to walk. Uncanny enough to be memorable, but not enough to lose its audience. While the overall critical reception of the film at this time has been shockingly positive, M3gan is a film that sincerely relies on its audience to be laughing within minutes to set up the expectation for its journey to the uncanny valley.

 

For some, it’s going to be one of the best surprises of the year. For others, it’s going to be a relative chore to sit through. Thus is the nature of this tightrope walk.

 

Tuesday, December 6, 2022

Space Jeeps, Wuxia Leaps, and Alien Creeps: Alienoid (2022) Review

Director: Choi Dong-hoon

Notable Cast: Ryu Jun-yeol, Kim Woo-bin, Kim Tae-ri, Choi Yu-ri, So Ji-sub, Yum Jung-ah, Jo Woo-jin, Kim Eui-sung, Lee Ha-nee, Shin Jung-geun, Lee Si-hoon, Kim Dae-myung

 

After the opening voice-over narrative tells the audience that aliens are being imprisoned inside people’s brains, I started to question where Alienoid was heading as a story. 

 

Scratch that. When the film jumped 600 years into the past, I really started to question what this film had in store for me. 

 

Wait. Hold on. It was when the space SUV pummels through a sky portal to reveal a cyborg and his shape-changing Apple-style Wall-E knock-off sidekick who steal a baby from said past, rewire her brain, and raise her as a contributing member of the society in current times that I started to wonder… where in the fiery CGI-green-screen hell was this film going to go?

 

The answer is that Alienoid goes. It just goes. And it goes. And it goes. And it goes. 

 

Sunday, November 27, 2022

Drop On By the Clown Café: Terrifier 2 (2022) Review

Director: Damien Leone

Notable Cast: Lauren LaVera, David Howard Thorton, Elliot Fullam, Sarah Voigt, Kailey Hyman, Casey Hartnett, Catherine Corcoran, Amelie McLain, Charlie McElveen

 

Although I was inherently struck with the original Terrifier with its stylish and utterly nihilistic take on the slasher genre, it’s a film I had not revisited since reviewing it for Blood Brothers in 2018. Not that it didn’t do an admirable job in modernizing the genre while simultaneously delivering a throwback 80s over-the-top slasher, but the genre just isn’t my personal favorite. However, the now infamously cult favorite villain Art the Clown did deserve a sequel in true slasher fashion, and the fact that it took 5 years for Terrifier 2 seemed like it was unjustifiably long. 

 

It’s a damn slasher, how hard is it to write and direct a sequel? The first film was devilishly simple, so the sequel could do very little and still be successful. 

 

Now that Art is back, returning with writer/director Damien Leone who gets his name above the title, it became very apparent why it was taking so long for Leone and company to deliver the sequel. Terrifier 2 is so much more than its predecessor. Not only does this brutal beast run a whopping 138 minutes (an unheard-of length for a slasher film) but it’s taking the franchise in some bold new directions. It’s still hitting the elements of success from its predecessor, but it’s smartly pushing the franchise forward into some gloriously delirious and vicious new places - and nailing it. 

 

Thursday, November 24, 2022

Putting the War in Water: Hansan: Rising Dragon (2022) Review

Director: Kim Han-min

Notable Cast: Park Hae-il, Byun Yo-han, Ahn Sung-ki, Son Hyun-joo, Kim Sung-kyu, Kim Sung-kyun, Kim Hyang-gi, Ok Taec-yeon

 

War of the Arrows with its blend of historical setting and marital arts action easily had me smitten. When he returned to that style with The Admiral: Roaring Currents, I was also relatively smitten. The style was epic, in both visuals and tone, and naval warfare at its center was as dynamic as Choi Min-sik was in in the titular role. Thus, when Kim Han-min decided to make another film in the same ilk as The Admiral with Hansan: Rising Dragon, it was hard not to get excited. The man has a knack for the genre and style.

 

Yet, throughout the experience of Hansan, I was never swept away in its wake. It fulfills all the necessary components laid out by his previous two films, but it is one that felt more formulaic and drab this time around.

 

Wednesday, November 23, 2022

Say No More, Namor: Black Panther: Wakanda Forever (2022) Review

Director: Ryan Coogler

Notable Cast: Letitia Wright, Lupita Nyong’o, Danai Gurira, Winston Duke, Dominique Thorne, Tenoch Huerta Mejia, Angela Bassett, Florence Kasumba, Michaela Coel, Mabel Cadena

 

With a smoldering look in his eye and a defiant and yet somehow caring lilt to his voice, Tenoch Huerta Mejia’s Namor, the antagonist of Black Panther: Wakanda Forever, practically purrs when he’s speaking to Shuri, played by Letitia Wright. His presence is a massive burning sun in the film even as he sits having a heart-to-heart with the big hero. Yet, when he makes his big request to the Princess of Wakanda, he states it as a matter of fact. He asks her to burn the world with him. 

 

You know what? Say no more, Namor. I’m with you. Burn this piece of shit planet to the ground. 

 

Granted, his request in the film is far more loaded with contextual matter than his simple line of dialogue. This isn’t a young man passing a folded-up note to his crush in study hall. Or sending a text message. Or whatever kids do these days. Maybe TikTok. This is a man burdened with the knowledge and memories of a people driven to the sea by Spanish conquerors as they plundered his land for resources. And plundered his people as resources. Once again, Black Panther: Wakanda Forever proves that director and co-writer Ryan Coogler is far more interested in the gray areas of emotional and social commentary provided by the villains than the heroes in his Marvel movies. 

 

Wednesday, November 16, 2022

Go Huo Go: The Grandmaster of Kung Fu (2019) Review

Director: Chen Siyu

Notable Cast: Dennis To, Zhuang Han, Li Ruoxi, Naomen Eerdeni, Li Mengmeng, Liu Aiguo, Gao Xuepeng, Yang Yongfeng, Chu Pangching

 

For martial arts actors, there are a few roles that one can snatch which immediately put them on the map. Most of them are folk heroes of the past, but when Dennis To snagged a role as a “young” Ip Man, he went to A-tier for the fans - even if that film was one of the first Ipsploitation films. Not only did he succeed in that role for the film Ip Man: The Legend Is Born, but he has also returned to the role multiple times and continually found and grew his fan base. 

 

Thus, a few years ago when Dennis To leaped into another key folk hero role as Huo Yuanjia for the film The Grandmaster of Kung Fu, it was easy to feel pretty excited about the prospect. Unfortunately, the film - which was initially released as a streaming exclusive in China - did not receive a US release until 2022 via the Hi-Yah streaming service and through our friends at Well Go USA. 

 

Yet, here we are, The Grandmaster of Kung Fu has finally dropped. While the film suffers from some of the usual issues of modern streaming films, it’s also surprisingly solid and entertaining in how it goes about telling a story that any self-respecting kung fu fan has seen 2000 times. It’s action-packed, tight in its storytelling, and features a handful of great screen performances.