Monday, March 20, 2023

Ghostface Takes Stabhattan: Scream VI (2023) Review

Directors: Matt Bettinelli-Olpin, Tyler Gillett

Notable Cast: Melissa Barrera, Jenna Ortega, Jasmin Savoy Brown, Mason Gooding, Courteney Cox, Hayden Panettiere, Dermot Mulroney, Liana Liberato, Jack Champion, Devyn Nekoda, Josh Segarra, Samara Weaving


The meta-commentary that has always been provided within the Scream franchise found new life with Scream 2022 when it was released… let me check my notes, uh, yep, last year. The attack on the “requel” - or which can also be labeled as the “legacy sequel” - was smart in playing on the freshly minted tropes, particularly for slashers, and suddenly this horror franchise had legs and momentum under it once again. In the rather insane way that the Scream films have evolved, it was the next step to bring it to the current state of horror. 


Although Scream VI tries out a few “new” ideas by taking the sequel and planting it in Montreal New York and attacking modern horror franchise continuations, it’s one that mostly sticks to its knives when it comes to delivering a Scream sequel. Although it hardly reaches the cleverness or seemingly invested writing of the fifth entry, it does happen to deliver quite a bit of slasher entertainment as it ramps up the brutality and cutting slasher chase sequences that maximize its Montreal New York setting. 


Friday, March 17, 2023

Focus and Control: Creed III (2023) Review

Director: Michael B. Jordan

Notable Cast: Michael B. Jordan, Tessa Thompson, Jonathan Majors, Wood Harris, Phylicia Rashad, Mila Davis-Kent, Jose Benavidez Jr, Selenis Leyva, Florian Munteanu 


One step. One punch. One round at a time. 


This mantra from the first Creed makes a brief appearance in the final act of Creed III. It’s a smooth callback to the original and it’s a small reminder of just how far this sub-series within the Rocky franchise has come in three films. Yes, it’s a phrase that has stuck with me since the first film, but hearing Michael B. Jordan’s Adonis Creed mutter it under his breath prior to the big final match was a stark reminder of why this series has had potency in recent years. For a franchise with almost 50 years of material, Creed III is tackling legacy in such a smart way that even bringing back the mantra as thematic is potent. 


However, the problem that plagued the previous sequel was that the Creed series was still living in the shadow of its past. Creed II was less a sequel to its predecessor and more of a sequel to Rocky IV. Fun, yes, but it’s a problem that Creed III needed to address. Creed needed to step out from the shadows of the past and into the future, both as a character and as a film series. 


This is the first reason why Creed III finds success. The series attempts to alter the course by pulling as far away from Rocky as possible. Yes, Rocky’s mantra makes an appearance and Sly Stallone’s Italian Stallion is mentioned briefly, but this entry is making the intelligent maneuver of leaning away from Rocky’s lore as a basis and finding its own lore to create. Although it is still hard to beat the coming-of-age and rise to glory of the original Creed, Creed III is a large step up from its predecessor and finds an incredible balance of entertainment, heart, and a new vision for the franchise's future. 


Thursday, March 16, 2023

Stab for Stab: Psycho (1998) Review [Scream Factory]

Director: Gus Van Sant

Notable Cast: Vince Vaughn, Anne Heche, Julianne Moore, William H. Macy, Viggo Mortensen, Robert Forster


I originally saw the 1998 Psycho remake with my family when we rented it as a new release on VHS. I was a mere 15 years old at that time and had seen/owned the first 3 Psycho films on VHS. Upon viewing it, my family found it completely pointless and I remember disliking it myself. Being a teenager, sometimes your opinion can be influenced by the views of your family so when I picked up the original Psycho Tetralogy on Blu-ray (with the snazzy Scream Factory issues), I decided to pull the trigger and purchase the lambasted Gus Van Sant remake to see if my opinion was still the same 25 years later. Perhaps I could see the film in a new light through the filter of time and perhaps see some artistic integrity I initially missed. Welp, I can honestly say 25 years later, I still find it a completely pointless film.

Sunday, February 26, 2023

Correct Your Tastes: Hidden Blade (2023) Review

Director: Cheng Er

Notable Cast: Tony Leung, Wang Yibo, Eric Wang, Zhou Xun, Huang Lei, Chengpeng Dong, Maggie Jiang, Zhang Jingyi, Hiroyuki Mori


Although the Japanese occupation of China has been the topic of umpteen-million Chinese films throughout their cinematic history, many different genres approach the subject in unique ways so that it still can feel fresh… with the proper execution. Hidden Blade, the latest film from director Cheng Er, leaps into the world of Shanghai in the late 1930s and early 1940s during the Japanese occupation. It’s not a wholly original concept, in fact, Cheng Er dealt with similar subject matters in his previous effort The Wasted Times, but it’s an artful and tensely executed espionage film with an overt style that slices through each moment. 


While the big draw of the film will be Tony Leung doing his thing in a nifty period setting, which we will get to momentarily, the most fascinating aspect of Hidden Blade is its almost dream-like narrative structure. While the first act features some stunning visuals and tense key moments, it practically drifts in a fluid manner through each sequence in a way that thinly draws some connections but never solidifies the ‘why’ or even ‘when’ they are occurring. 


This allows Hidden Blade to play games with its audience. The film is inherently about the Chinese men and women who are working with the Japanese during the occupation of its time frame, but it’s immediately known that each one carries ulterior motives. Like the characters, who hide, reveal, or manipulate one another, the narrative does the same. As allegiances shift, the characters bounce through their navigation of multiple alliances and it’s just damn good espionage. It’s toying with the audience and it’s entertaining in that manner. 


Saturday, February 11, 2023

Mirages Are About to Appear: Ox-Head Village (2023) Review [Screambox Original]

Director: Takashi Shimizu

Notable Cast: Koki, Riku Hagiwara, Keiko Horiuchi, Rinka Otani, Haruka Imou, Akaji Maro, Satoru Matsuo, Fumiya Takahashi, Naoki Tanaka, Satoru Date, Riko


At just over the fifteen-minute mark in Takashi Shimizu’s latest horror flick, Ox-Head Village, our leading lady and her “not-boyfriend” go to a smaller seaside town looking to investigate a viral video.  An announcement over a loudspeaker is made, “the mirages are about to appear.” Everyone skitters to the water’s edge to see the mirages and Kanon, the lead character of this story played by Koki, starts to see the forms of people on the water. Ghostly people.


Although this would seem like the first ghostly images to start off a horror film, we’re already fifteen minutes into a Shimizu story. That means we’ve already seen plenty of visual trickery, ghostly images, and classic unnerving subtle spook work. Unattached hands, vague visages of oxen's head, and a minor case of doppelganger reflections. By the time these ‘mirages’ show up, Ox-Head Village has already been littering the landscape with classic J-horror visuals and tones. You’re damn right, it’s a Shimizu film. 


The first fifteen minutes of Ox-Head Village is a stark reminder of why the previously appointed sub-genre of J-Horror, an entire tone and style that Shimizu helped establish with his Ju-On (Grudge) films, can be so damn compelling. This third part of his “Village Trilogy,” which includes Howling Village and Suicide Forest Village, is Shimizu going back to the well that has kept him a staple of the haunted genre for decades. It’s also the best one of the trilogy. 


Wednesday, February 8, 2023

Burn It to the Ground: Burning Paradise (1994) Review

Director: Ringo Lam

Notable Cast: Willie Chi, Carman Lee, Wong Kam-Kong, Yamson Domingo, Maggie Lam Chuen, John Ching Tung, Kam-Fai Yuen, Ng Hey-Sin, Lee Chi, Chris Lee King-Sang


Wuxia films from the 90s, particularly the early 90s, are their own breed. After the genre lost some favor with audiences throughout the 80s as urban and modern action films started to dominate the box offices, Tsui Hark rekindled the genre with his epic Once Upon a Time in China series, and a new age of wuxia was born. In the wake of the success of that franchise, a lot of studios and filmmakers took their own stab (swing? slice?) at the genre but with slightly updated tones and style for the 90s. 


One of the most intriguing gaps in my own experience of working through the bigger titles from this decade was Burning Paradise. Directed by the iconic Ringo Lam, only two years before he would exit the Hong Kong industry to make his attempt at breaking into Hollywood, Burning Paradise was the only time he would dabble in the wuxia genre. 


And while the film had its own cult reputation through bootlegs, it’s only just recently did the film find a fantastic home video release via Vinegar Syndrome for fans, like me, to finally experience. 


Tuesday, February 7, 2023

Putting the Cult in Cult Cinema: Yellow Dragon's Village (2023) [Screambox Original]

Director: Yugo Sakamoto

Notable Cast: Atomu Mizuishi, Mayu Suzuki, Takuya Matsumoto, Yuni Akino, Zingi Umemoto, Rikiya Kaidou, Yu Yasuda, Wataru Ichinose, Itsuki Fuji, Masayuki Ino, Kenta Osaka


Never underestimate the DIY indie film industry either. Sure, the big leagues and studio films have the money and time to make some impressive feats of cinema, but sometimes the most interesting slices of celluloid are the ones found in the cracks of the system. Take Yellow Dragon’s Village for instance. The film looks to be made by its on and off-screen creative teams for roughly $100 and the promise of shots at the local bar at the end of each day, but there is such a freedom to its playfulness that immediately strikes. 


While the film might be listed as a horror, sometimes a drama, on various platforms, it is far more than that. Yellow Dragon’s Village is premiere-low budget filmmaking at its finest, delivering a coy sense of humor along with its genre-bending play on expectations in a way that sets up its audience for one thing and then batters them with another. It uses its serious filmmaking concepts and then promptly, more than once, throws them out the window for the sake of toying with its audience.


Debuting on the streaming service Screambox, it’s that horror tag that represents the initial expectations that Yellow Dragon’s Village is playing with. Director Yugo Sakamoto, the one-man do-it-yourself filmmaker who delivered two (!) fantastic action films last year with A Janitor and Baby Assassins, tackles the horror genre with a story that starts off like any classic horror film. A group of college-aged youths find themselves stranded in the forest. It’s only when they stumble upon the titular village, where the locals offer to help them out, that they uncover a cult looking for their next sacrifice. 


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.