Monday, July 28, 2014

Tale of Zatoichi Continues, The (1962)

Director: Kazuo Mori
Notable Cast: Shintaro Katsu, Tomisaburo Wakayama, Yaeko Mizutani, Masayo Banri

Due to the lack of home video and limited theatrical showings, many films from the decades before the 80s played out more like serials. Instead of direct sequels, they would have characters return for ‘another adventure’ or ‘another quest’ instead of relying so directly on previous entries. This is how I assumed the Zatoichi series would play out, but when they called the second film The Tale of Zatoichi Continues they sure as hell meant it. It’s a direct sequel to the first film, pulling heavily (with little in the way of exposition) on those events and building on top of them to deliver a film that almost matches the awesome execution of The Tale of Zatoichi.

Zatoichi (Shintaro Katsu) has been wandering about his way for the last year and has decided to fulfill his promise to return to the slain samurai’s grave in the small village where he vanquished him. Unfortunately, on his way there he has come until some unwanted knowledge about a traveling lord that his a league of samurai out for his head. On top of that, a mysterious traveling ronin and his sidekick have taken an interest in Zatoichi too, leading them towards an inevitable battle founded in the past.

Side by side, they faced each other...
The Tale of Zatoichi Continues starts off as one of the serials that I mentioned before. Zatoichi, once again played with a convincing depth and wide array of emotional bursts by Shintaro Katsu, finds himself on the wrong end of some pissed off folks although this time not of his doing. At first I wasn’t quite as sold on this approach. The wayward one armed ronin who seems to be following Zatoichi, the geisha who helps him, the evil lord; they all seemed to lack the impact and character depth that really built the first film up. Yet about half way through the film, the revelations about some of these folks come to the forefront – including an awesome twist that brings the ronin and his chasers clashing in the final act – and the film suddenly carries a lot of weight to it and the pay off is utterly worth it.

At a ridiculously brisk 72 minutes, Continues packs a lot of punch in a very short time. With a new director at the helm, Kazuo Mori emulates the atmosphere and style of the first one pretty impressively. There is a bit more action to be had, including a more traditional feeling sword fight in the opening bit and another pending duel in the last act that add to the stakes. Truthfully there are only two things that hinder this sequel from reaching the heights of the first film and it’s the rather melodramatic score and the odd way that end of the film occurs. Neither are huge determents towards the samurai film experience, but do pull it back just enough.

All against all.
For those of you that loved the The Tale of Zatoichi then following it up with this direct sequel is a must. It’s not quite as effect as the first, but the combination of smart writing, another round of brilliant characters, and a fantastic final act make this second film of the franchise a must see for samurai fans. I would even suggest watching it back to back with the first for better impact as I did.

Written By Matt Reifschneider

Purge: Anarchy, The (2014)

Director: James DeMonaco
Notable Cast: Frank Grillo, Carmen Ejogo, Zach Gilford, Kiele Sanchez, Zoe Soul

Growing up with the gritty movies of the 70s and 80s, my tastes have always been geared towards the extremity of those films over the spectacle and clean style that proceeded. So when I was told that The Purge: Anarchy was heavily inspired by John Carpenter, I knew I had to see it. I was not a fan of the first Purge for many reasons (some of which I will get to in this review), but just having my friends tell me that this one was Carpenter inspired had me sold. To say ‘inspired’ might be an understatement though. The Purge: Anarchy is the John Carpenter film we’ve been waiting for at Blood Brothers since Vampires. It’s not a perfect film and hits on a lot of cliché beats in telling its story, but dammit I had a blast watching this grindhouse inspired modern film.

It’s the night of The Purge, an annual new American tradition where all crimes are made legal for 12 hours, and the masses are either prepping to survive or kill. For a mother and daughter duo (Ejogo and Soul) it’s a night to simply survive. For a troubled husband and wife (Gilford and Sanchez), some unfortunate car maintenance brings about disastrous results. For a man on the hunt for revenge (Grillo), it might just mean his redemption.

"It's gonna be one hell of a night."
To be perfectly honest, for those who dwell in some of the low budget films of the 70s and 80s, Anarchy is not going to feel all that new. I mentioned John Carpenter in the intro and, in my honest opinion, Anarchy is essentially a slightly off set bastard child of the original Assault on Precinct 13 and Escape from New York. Director James DeMonaco obviously loves Mr. Carpenter (hell, he even penned the screenplay for the remake of Assault on Precinct 13) and it shows in this film. From the anti-hero antics and snarky remakes of Grillo, the dark gritty tones, and balance between thriller and action with a streak of horror, Anarchy is about as close as you get to a Carpenter film. If only it had the synth heavy soundtrack, I might have been fooled.

While the resulting tones and style aren’t new, the ability to see a film like this in wide release (and putting up successful numbers) is rather fresh and fun. DeMonaco knows how to blend a bit of grindhouse into a more mainstream styled film and it worked for me. While many of the characters can seem a bit cliché for their own good (the husband and wife duo was a bit forced although a turn for them in the final act was solid gold), the mother/daughter combo seemed effective and Grillo turns in a great 80s style anti hero performance. I’m pretty sure he just unofficially made an audition for another reboot of The Punisher during this film with his tough guy ass kicking (and stern jaw) and if he doesn’t get that role when it comes to fruition then I’m going to be pissed.

Perhaps the biggest surprise was the lacking horror elements of this sequel. Let’s remember now, it’s a sequel to one of the big horror surprises of 2013. Not that the original Purge was all that good. It severely lacked horror elements itself and the by-the-numbers approach to a home invasion flick just felt like The Strangers if it was a neutered film. Yet, Anarchy is the kind of film that truly runs with the silly grindhouse concept of The Purge. Instead of run-of-the-mill jump scares and tension, this sequel adds a bit of titular chaos to the mix. Sure there is tension and atmosphere, some of the God’s eye view shots of our heroes on the city streets were impressive, but the random bursts of violence and debauchery make use of the concept much better: a neighbor threatens sexual assault at gunpoint, a fire truck zips by on fire, a man is pinned to the walls of a bank for losing trust funds. This film truly goes to show the evil streak of humanity on screen and not just for exploitative reasons. A subplot involving a militant rebel group against The Purge attempts to throw some moral light to humanity. Although this element is more or less left open for further installments (here’s hoping for some They Live anti-mainstream commentary), it’s a great balance that really worked for this reviewer.

All in the details...
I was pleasantly surprised with the resulting film that I saw in The Purge: Anarchy. It hits some basic thriller beats and character plot arcs, but the execution of the gritty style and 80s style action thriller foundation is superb. This is not a film for everyone (and even those of a more skeptical mindset might pick at some of the obvious plot progressions towards the latter half of the film), but for this reviewer it was a remarkable throw back film that hit the spot. It comes highly recommended.

Written By Matt Reifschneider

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Dragonwolf (2014)

Director: Raimund Huber
Notable Cast: Kazu Patrick Tang, Johan Kirsten, Macha Polivka, Guk Srisawat

There have been a decent amount of low budget B-grade action flicks in the last year that have entertained me and I’m always a sucker for a silly kung fu flick, but I won’t lie when I say that Dragonwolf tested my patience a bit. While I have yet to check out Bangkok Adrenaline from the director of this film Huber, I don’t think I will be anytime soon. Dragonwolf desperately tries to balance some of the silly martial arts elements of low budget Thai action and a more serious and theatrical beats of a gangster drama. The mix is astoundingly bad. It’s not bad enough to be tongue-in-cheek entertainment and it’s not good enough to sell the more serious tones. It rests in being a film that doesn’t seem to know what it wants to be.

Mozart (Tang) and Julius (Kirsten) have been friends and ‘brothers’ since they were children. Living on the streets and improving their fighting skills, the two start working for a crime lord as enforcers and drug runners and work their way up the ranks quickly. When a woman enters their lives and begins to tear them apart, betrayal and violence starts to find a way into their lives and Julius leaves Mozart for dead. Now Mozart must find a way to topple Julius and take his revenge, before it’s too late.

Unlikely duo.
Dragonwolf too often plays out like a martial arts soap opera and it’s irritating. While the entire ‘vengeance in the name of love’ isn’t necessarily new for thrillers or kung fu films, when you throw as much bro love/hate and pining moments motivated by semi-romantic flashbacks as this film does, then it gets to be a little grating. To make matters even worse, the acting from all parties is about as hammy and forced as you can get. There are brief moments where some real emotion feels like it comes forward (Kirsten in his debut role has a few moments), but too often it’s ruined by some of the super melodramatic score or the copious amounts of needless nudity. At over two hours long, Dragonwolf could have cut a lot of the overly dramatic beats out and it probably would have doubled the entertainment of the film.

Truthfully, the only real thing that Dragonwolf has going for it is the action. The choreography from Tang (whom also plays Mozart) is pretty impressive overall. Whether it’s the style vs style of Mozart vs The Trio or the weapon battle towards the end, the action is pretty decent and fun to watch. The blood drops that this film earned come mostly for this aspect of the film. Now if only it didn’t drag on in between these set pieces and make me want to take a nap then perhaps this film would have been more enjoyable as a whole experience.

That being said, there is a campy aspect to Dragonwolf that might appeal to some people. The opening sequence (which features sepia tones and a shaman) is delightfully bad and invoked quite a few laughs from me. The unintentional hilarity of some sequences does have its place in the cult world and many will dig into that portion of the film. I can’t say that I didn’t occasionally find this film funny, even with it’s very, very serious approach. So it does have that going for it.

Yes, this is a real fight from the film.
Otherwise, Dragonwolf is perhaps one of the worst action films I’ve seen all year. Its one saving grace is some decent action set pieces, but the rest of the film is a chore to work through. As a Z-grade flick, it might have its place as a bad flick for some folks, but even then I was having trouble choking it down. So be warned, Dragonwolf is a film to very cautious going into…if you even want to try at all. 

Written By Matt Reifschneider

Friday, July 25, 2014

SX_Tape (2014)

Director: Bernard Rose
Notable Cast: Caitlyn Folley, Ian Duncan, Chris Coy, Diana Carcia

I like to think I’m the kind of film critic that is able to put aside my own distaste for a style and learn to look at it through unbiased eyes. Does the film utilize the style well? Does it accomplish what it attempts to accomplish? For found footage horror, there has been films that do raise the execution above the general shitty reputation to receives. For a film like SX_Tape though, there are not a lot of redemptive qualities for it. It’s generic with little in the way of scary elements and the story is just a basic combination of found footage horror mixed with the haunted hospital setting. In fact, some of the plot progressions come off as almost offensive in their stupidity.

Jill (Folley) and Adam (Duncan) are attempting to prep her artwork for a show. When they discover an abandoned hospital, they decide to check it out to see if maybe it would be the edgy place for her edgy artwork. Things take a turn for the worse when two of their friends show up and tensions mount as Jill begins to act stranger and stranger.

I had to be tied down too...just to finish the damn film.
The biggest issue with SX_Tape is that is sits precariously on top of a double-edged sword. On one hand, it does an admirable thing by keeping the plot decently vague so that the viewer can figure and put things together on their own. On the other hand, the story is so bare in quality writing, characters, and dialogue that I wasn’t even interested in putting any effort into understanding or caring about what was happening. By the time that the two friends show up and the four head back into the hospital (?!), I was a bit confused by the asinine progression the plot was going. By the time they introduced a love triangle with the characters (all of whom turn out to simply be giant assholes as people) I felt like turning off the film. Not only did the plot seem to be going nowhere, but there was no redemptive qualities in any of the dumb decisions for the characters. There was no reason for me to keep going.

I did though. Tricking myself into thinking that perhaps, just perhaps, there was an ace in the sleeve for the ending. There’s not. No final twist. No sweeping moral highlight. No purpose. I even thought that there might be some kind of clever and brutal spin to the ghostly apparition that appeared (rarely) in the previous acts of the film. Well there is sort of a last scene with a brutal bit of violence, but it makes no sense and it’s not worth the time.

After the film I felt like this: broken and beaten.
Considering that the director of this film delivered one of the great modern classics of horror in Candyman, I’m almost stunned at how inept this film was from the ground up. There are no scares, no characters to give two shits about, and no plot to wrap your mind around. SX_Tape is handedly the worst horror film I’ve seen all year and one that I highly suggest skipping for your own sanity. 

Written By Matt Reifschneider

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Tale of Zatoichi, The (1962)

Director: Kanji Misumi
Notable Cast: Shintaro Katsu, Shigeru Amachi, Masayo Banri, Michiro Minami

While my preference has always been with the Chinese kung fu and wuxia films, in the last couple of years I have decided to really delve into the swordsman genre. For this, I picked up the massive Criterion Collection release of the Zatoichi series to review. The first film, The Tale of Zatoichi was a lot different than I imagined it would be. It's far less violent and extreme in execution as say Lone Wolf and Cub or Lady Snowblood and much more akin to the films of Akira Kurosawa, although a bit easier to digest. The end result is a film populated with fascinating characters, an easy but subtle plot, and a finale worth the slow burn.

With tension mounting between two yakuza clans, Zatoichi (Shintaro Katsu) finds himself caught up in a escalating situation. As a blind man, people always underestimate his powers as a swordsman, but the leader of one clan knows this and pressures him to stay with pampering and money. When the other clan hires the talents of a ailing ronin Hirate (Shigeru Amachi) to balance out the sides, a war seems inevitable.

While sword fighting films seem noted for their sword play and intense characters, The Tale of Zatoichi seems content in keeping things in the gray area. This first film of the series takes its sweet time really building up our anti-hero and the complexity off the situation at hand. Truthfully, it’s about half way through before we see Zatoichi pull his sword in defense and even then it’s done in a way that really showcases his lethal speed and precision instead of some well-choreographed battle. The rest of the film really focuses on the character development and interaction of the world created. The actors involved handle this interaction between plot and character with surprising finesse. Both Shintaro Katsu (as Zatoichi) and Shigeru Amachi (as the ronin Hirate) really slather on deep and subtle character work for the two main characters, although the latter gets far less screen time despite his importance to the plot and our lead, and the intriguing dynamics of the supporting cast left me enveloped in the world of these two clans. While some of the subplots are obviously there only for character development (including a romantic one), they are effective in placement and how it all works together.

Burning the candle at both...sides?
As for the finale when the tensions mount to the brink of war, director Kenji Misumi handles it with stunning visual prowess. The battle scenes are played more for realism and minimal budget constraints for these eager but poorly trained yakuza yes-men and when Zatoichi and Hirate finally meet, the camera shot that pans, spins, and zooms is damn near breathtaking. The build towards the finale is pretty hefty, but it pays off in spades leaving our final sword duel one of emotional weight instead of testosterone-fueled arrogance.

While I didn’t expect this franchise starter to be such a dramatic and effective piece of cinema, the resulting brilliance of The Tale of Zatoichi works on a variety of levels. As a swordsman film it hits all the necessary elements of loyalty, betrayal, and the lonely road of trying to accomplish the right deed with the sword as a burden and as a drama it nails the depth of characters and pacing of plot. It’s a fantastic film to start off my massive marathon and one that I highly suggest to any cinephile.

Written By Matt Reifschneider

Non-Stop (2014)

Director: Jaume Collet-Serra
Notable Cast: Liam Neeson, Julianne Moore

Say what you want about the most recent shift in Liam Neeson’s career after his turn for the badass in Taken, but it’s probably my favorite era so far. Sure the films are substandard overall in quality compared to his high class films like Schindler’s List, but the entertaining value of watching Neeson gravel talk and kick ass in a variety of ridiculous situations has me hooked. Even when the film is more suspense and thriller oriented, like Non-Stop, I find myself inherently latched into the film. His latest romp (more similar to his film Unknown rather than Taken) is not a great film. In fact, half of the ‘tricks’ and ‘red herrings’ of the mystery are pretty asinine. Yet, I was thoroughly entertained through and through by the Sherlock Holmes-esque tale.

Bill Marks (Neeson) has had a bit of trouble moving on with his life. Everything around him seems to be crumbling and he’s recently been stuck as a US Air Marshall despite his own fear of flying. On a non-stop flight from the US to London, Marks gets a mysterious text message. Someone is on the flight is going to kill a person every 20 minutes unless they’re paid. The clock is ticking and the space is small, but Marks is going to have to give more than he ever has if he’s going to stop the killer.

Drunk and saving the day...again!
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: originality is not always needed for a film to work. Non-Stop is your basic murder mystery thriller that just so happens to have the gimmick of being set on a plane. It plays up cliché sets of characters (the overly stressed businesswoman played by Julianne Moore, the paranoid cop, the secret bad guy) and does it’s best to really give the audience a tough time in solving the mystery before Neeson does. Even Neeson is given a pretty cliché character as the alcoholic, rule breaking anti-hero that he has come to personify in the last few years. The writing is more or less forced through the motions and by the last act I sort of gave up in trying to sift through the red herrings because half of them were so outrageously thrown in that it felt like it didn’t matter. On paper, Non-Stop looks like a straight to home video thriller that you wouldn’t pay $10 for.

That’s on paper. The resulting film is actually much better than that. Between Jaume Collet-Serra’s direction and the charm of a stellar cast, Non-Stop is able to jump a lot of the potential derailing issues that plague the script. Neeson is again a massive screen presence, even as the same character we’ve seen a million times over, and the supporting cast is delightfully dedicated to selling their stereotypical roles. Collet-Serra, whom also worked on the mystery thriller Unknown with Neeson, adds a blend of modern spin to the classic murder-mystery plot with flair. Text message bubbles hang in the air, the cramped space of an airplane never gets repetitive, and he injects just enough tension that the few action set pieces pop effectively. In fact, an early fistfight in the airplane bathroom is a big highlight of the film with some great camera work and intense moments. Truly, the execution of Non-Stop carries the film to a much higher altitude than the script should have flown at.

Face. Meet wall.
There are sure to be those that really never get into Non-Stop with the very silly script and really strange (sometimes out of the blue) plot jumps, but if you want a fun way to kill a couple hours than Non-Stop will stamp your passport with its charm and strong visual flair. As a bonus, you get to hear Neeson rasp lines like “I’m not hijacking this plane. I’m trying to save it!” and “Am I in your way, asshole?” Just for those, Non-Stop is worth the price.

Written By Matt Reifschneider

Blood+ ep. 1-50 (2005)

Let's get this party started!
Yello my friends! I finally did it. After about a month of dedication, I was able to complete the epic episode watching adventure known as "Blood+". Or as I like to call it, John's personal 100 year war. This battle began in 2005 and finally reached its end in July 2014. Alright so it wasn't quite 100 yrs, but man it felt like it at times. Let me explain. You see back in 2005 I was working part time at a Suncoast Video store, remember those? Life was swell then. Anyways at that time I was only able to see a few episodes of the "new" vampire series from "Blood the Last Vampire." After the first views I was sold, I mean who couldn't use more Saya in their life? Well as life does so often, it threw me a few curve balls and I had to put Saya in the corner for awhile. Then a few months back I noticed that my friends at Netflix had "Blood+" just sitting in my queue waiting for me to revisit Saya once again.  Several hours and 50 episodes later we danced our last dance or so I thought. More on this later, for now let us get to the review of "Blood+"

Synopsis - Inspired by "Blood the Last Vampire," "Blood+" is its own entity. While there are a few basic elements from the original movie "Blood+" should be looked at completely differently. For one the main character Saya has the name of the character but is far different from the original Saya. The basics of this story are pretty simple really. Saya, the main character of the series, is a seemingly normal 16 yr old girl. Living with her adoptive family and suffering from amnesia she slowly starts to get bits and pieces of her memory back. After an attack on her by a chiropteran Saya learns she is the only one that can stop these creatures. Armed with her special/badass katana, Saya sets out to find the truth about her past and these creatures.

While the series is set in 2005, her story starts many years before. Through her visions and memories we get to see the whole story unfold.

Can I get some theme music Haji?

Review - The thing with a series as lengthy as "Blood +" is you have to assume there will be many filler episodes. Truth be told I never really got that vibe here. I think there is so much story within the main story going on that it was easy for the writers to actual be able to stay the course and put out a quality product. With the original source material leaving a lot of people wanting more here in "Blood +" we are given 50 episodes or 2 seasons to really have the story come together. With that I feel like it was ultimately a solid piece of orchestrated goodness. I can walk away with a satisfaction that the story is complete and my love affair with Saya has come to an end.

On to the animation/ artwork, in a word: beautiful! 50 solid looking episodes with crisp colors and lots of blood shed. The action scenes are top of the line and with so much of the series being action it was good not to grow tired of it. I feel that the choreography is better than a lot of things done nowadays it definitely stands the test of time. Or at least 9 years worth.

Now for the characters. With a series this size and the depth of the story, character development is a must in my opinion. For me this is one thing that really hits home, it can make or break a series. Usually with a shorter anime series I tend to be a little more forgiving in this area. Thankfully with "Blood +" I didn't have to worry about this. Character development is one of the strongest things going for it.
From the main character to every side character, each person was given their due. In my humble opinion this is one of the most complete series that I have had the pleasure of viewing. It is truly amazing to see how the relationships are formed and the connections the chevaliers have with their masters. Devotion at its fullest.
One last dance
 Final thoughts - It took one hell of a journey for me to finally complete my mission with Saya. Now what? I know that there is another series out called "Blood C" and truth be told I will wait on it. It was a fun, blood splattering good time with "Blood +" and I really want to savor the series for awhile. I don't need no rebound series! I can honestly say this is a solid fun adventure filled with a great story and characters. If you do not fall in love with the characters from this series well I would be surprised.  Don't hesitate to check it out on Netflix or buy a copy below. With that said I will give "Blood +" an outstanding:
 Written By John Price

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (2014)

Director: Matt Reeves
Notable Cast: Andy Serkis, Jason Clarke, Gary Oldman, Toby Kebbell, Keri Russell, Kodi Smit-McPhee

The Planet of the Apes franchise has had its ups and downs over the decades. The original series couldn’t seem to find consistency in the five films, and the first attempted remake by Tim Burton saw the series lose almost all of its social commentary for a more action-oriented flick with off-putting humor. Luckily, the latest reboot of the series (starting with 2011’s phenomenal Rise of the Planet of the Apes) put the franchise back on track. Despite my high expectations for Matt Reeves’ helmed follow-up Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, this latest entry into the long-running science fiction series is even better. In fact, it’s one of the best. It’s a film that, like the original, has strength and universality in its script, along with perfect execution in the approach. It is one of the best films in the series and the best film of the year thus far.

The Simian Flu has almost wiped out humanity. The aggressive tactics of the human race trying to restrain it pushed then further towards oblivion. It’s been ten years now and Caesar (Serkis) has established a nice little colony of intelligent apes in the forests of California. When a group of humans attempt to restore power to their city with a dam near Caesar’s colony, the thoughtful ruler with have to navigate a fine line between forces that seem destined to send them to war.

A hairy situation...
The key to a great summer blockbuster like Dawn is balance: a balance between characters, balance between plot and action, balance of intelligence and entertainment, and a balance tension and relief. Dawn not only succeeds at this precarious balancing act, but delivers above and beyond on all of the elements while doing so. For all the big films this summer (and this year), Dawn is perhaps the best and most well rounded film I’ve seen.

Most of the film’s success starts with the writing. Rise was a film that was able to notably blend science fiction entertainment with heart and some strong social subtext. Dawn is the natural progression of that. It’s more entertaining, filled with bigger emotional beats, and a more aggressive subtext. The story is mostly told from the ape perspective with Caesar and his clan consuming an admirable amount of screen time as opposed to their human counterparts. Themes of loyalty, family, and trust run heavy in the character interactions and emotional beats as the film focuses on really fleshing out the foundational emotion of the science fiction built plot. It’s a ballsy move by the film to give so much depth to a slew of computer-animated characters (although the mocap here is phenomenal and both Serkis and Kebbel probably deserve Oscar nods for their portrayals of the apes), but Dawn succeeds here. Never have I felt an emotional connection to CGI in a film like I did here. It’s more than impressive.

While the plot might serve to hit some pretty basic formula’s overall, the execution of these beats is top notch. When the film needs an impactful moment, Serkis delivers. When it needs tension and suspense, Reeves slathers it on with strong visual pops including an exceptional hide and seek moment when the human leader is trying to take some surgical supplies out of a building that’s ape occupied.  When the film kicks into action mode in the last act building to Caesar’s return…the special effects amaze. Through and through, Dawn simply comes through and delivers the goods.

Ah... the friendly headbutt.
Say what you will about the Planet of the Apes franchise and whether you like it or not, but Dawn of the Planet of the Apes establishes a new watermark for the series. The balance is perfect. It’s thoughtful in all aspects of its execution in writing, visuals, and depth. By the end of the film, I was left with a need for more…for which I’ll have to wait a couple of years to get when the next entry debuts.

Written By Matt Reifschneider

Monday, July 14, 2014

Suspect, The (2014)

Director: Won Shin-yun
Notable Cast: Gong Yoo, Cho Hee-soon, Jo Seong-ha, Kim Sung-kyun

It’s fairly impressive that a film franchise like Bourne, despite initial doubts towards its success, would have changed the action landscape so much in the last decade. Whether those changes are good or bad is debatable depending on how you like your action direction. For me, it was a downgrade. The ‘kinetic’ camera work and relentless editing has butchered a lot of what made a great action sequence great in my opinion, but it’s a style that has latched on for mainstream audiences and it doesn’t seem to be going away any time soon. So why the hell am I talking about Bourne in a review for a South Korean action thriller like The Suspect? Well, this strong espionage flick is basically the Korean version of Bourne and while that might sway certain film fans one way or the other, it’s a film that’s definitely worth watching.

Dong-chul (Gong Yoo) has retired as much as he could. A highly trained one man killing machine for North Korea, after his family was killed he defected to the South and spends his days living a simple life as a personal driver and looking for the man who killed his family. When his employer ends up six feet deep, he’s the first one to blame for the crime. Now he must uncover the truth of a larger conspiracy in play.

Light in the dark...
Don’t misunderstand me, I had to grit my teeth through a lot of the directorial choices that Won Shin-yun used for his replication of Paul “Shaky McShakerton” Greengrass’ spastic action shooting. Luckily, I was pretty well prepared for it heading into the film so it wasn’t a massive determent towards my enjoyment of the film. Just take note that, this is the kind of film that utilizes this ‘in the moment’ high octane editing, rapid zooms, and vibrating screen.

Outside of that choice by Won Shin-yun, The Suspect is a great fucking spy flick. The film doesn’t necessarily break a lot of new ground with comparisons to the Bourne franchise repeating throughout, but the execution of the twisting plot and semi-ridiculous characters is top notch entertainment. Gong Yoo excels at the soft-spoken-but-ass-kicking hero here (complete with plenty of flash backs to various events that lead him to be who he is), but the real treat might come from Cho Hee-soon as the disgruntled military agent tasked with hunting down our hero. While his character tends to be a little cartoonish at times, he plays it with such vigor and a hint of depth that he steals damn near every scene he is in. Both of these men are surrounding by top notch secondary characters that really flesh out the entire experience.

The plot might get really ridiculous and spy cultured at times(Microfiche? Did someone just pull out a microfiche plot twist?!), but it kept me on the edge of my seat through and through. Not to mention that Won Shin-yun pummels the film with action to keep it from getting too plot heavy. It was expected that the film would have some great cat and mouse chase sequences (two car chases really punctuate this aspect), but I was mostly surprised with the stunningly well placed and choreographed hand to hand combat pieces. While the editing and shooting might have taken a lot out of action for me, I appreciate just how well these bits of martial arts worked into the plot. I’m always down for some great fist-to-cuffs in a film and The Suspect delivers.

Here's pointing at you, sir.
If you are willing to overlook the entire stylistic action choices for The Suspect, then this espionage film will entertain the hell out of you. It’s massively charismatic in the characters and plot and the film breaks for nothing in the relentless pace. The Suspect might not be perfect (the editing still grates me), but it’s otherwise a damn near perfect action thriller.

Written By Matt Reifschneider

Friday, July 11, 2014

Snowpiercer (2014)

Director: Bong Joon-ho
Notable Cast: Chris Evans, Song Kang-ho, Ko Ah-Sung, John Hurt, Tilda Swinton, Jamie Bell, Octavia Spencer, Ed Harris

Snowpiercer is the kind of film that defies many conventions. It’s a multinational film, although it truly has its heart built from South Korean film making, and in many ways it’s destined to be an instant cult classic. With a major American star in the lead, an action packed pacing, and some almost gimmicky plot progressions, one would think that this would be a prime film for the summer block buster season. Yet, it was crushed down to appearing in arthouse US cinemas almost a year after its South Korean debut. After experiencing the film, it actually makes sense. Despite being one of the best films of the year and knocking my proverbial socks off, I’m not sure a mainstream American audience could have handled a film like this.

In the not-so-distant future, the world has become a glacial and uninhabitable place ruined by human reaction. Only a never-ending train continues to support life on Earth, self-sustained and ever moving. For Curtis (Evans), it is both a blessing and a curse. Living in the tail end of the train and forced to consume protein blocks while pushing through overcrowded poverty, he pines to bring his people up to the front of the train to live with the wealthy. So he begins to plan. With the help of some determined individuals and an imprisoned security specialist (Song Kang-ho), he plans to take the engine.

Director Bong Joon-ho has always been in my peripheral vision for his fantastic monster flick The Host, but Snowpiercer is taking his work to the next level. Channeling his inner Terry Gilliam, Bong Joon-ho tackles a very high concept science fiction action tale (based on a French graphic novel) with ridiculously high energy and strong focus. At first the entire concept is a little hard to swallow, showcasing a blend of fantasy and science fiction to get the plot progressions across to build this intriguing world of the future where current worldly concerns rear their ugly head, but if you are willing to dive headfirst into the somewhat extreme context then there’s no way you are getting out without consuming the film as quickly as possible.

From there, Snowpiercer enlists a slew of memorable and quirky characters to inhabit the strange setting. Evans is dynamic in the lead role as a torn man pushing for equality for everyone on the train and he balances out the rather mysterious and off beat Korean duo that he enlists to help him on his quest. The film is littered with these great characters. From the wacky schoolteacher to Edgar the eager young activist or the two silent hit men killers sent to stop the rebellion, Snowpiercer is brilliantly built on strong characters and brilliant performances.

I mentioned previously that the mainstream American film going audience might find Snowpiercer hard to swallow. Not only is the concept impressively deep with political and social concepts that’s wrapped in science fiction fantasy with damn near everything symbolic with a separate meaning, but the film genre-bends at a wicked pacing. The film is a decently paced action flick in many regards, utilizing Bong Joon-ho’s talents for energy and spectacle that’s slathered in some pretty brutal violence at times, but it’s also quite the satire. This is where the true Terry Gilliam comparisons arise (not to mention having Gilliam regular John Hurt in the film playing a character named Gilliam). The audience I was with was uncertain whether to be shocked, disgusted, or laughing through most of the movie – a school house portion of the film flickers between disturbing and hilarious – and that was at an arthouse cinema. I’m guessing between the political subtext of the symbolism and the off beat humor, the Weinstein Company knew that the mainstream American audience wouldn’t quite buy in. I might have broken Korean box office records, but unless you’re a film fanatic with an open mind it might be a tough one to digest.

"Looks clean to me, sir."
All in all though, Snowpiercer knocked my block off. It was high brow entertainment at it’s best, blending humor, action, and science fiction fantasy into a one-two punch that could knock out most film scholars. Lead by a strong cast of relatable characters in a situation that’s both gimmicky and relevant, Snowpiercer is great and ferocious genre cinema that comes only with the highest recommendation.

 Written By Matt Reifschneider

Monday, July 7, 2014

Planet of the Apes (1968)

Director: Franklin J. Schaffner
Notable Cast: Charlton Heston, Roddy McDowall, Kim Hunter, Maurice Evans, Linda Harrison

From the time I was a little boy, the original Planet of the Apes always fascinated me. It was a combination of big concept entertainment, cheese, and it had great special effects. I mean apes with guns who rode horses? How cool was that?! As time has gone on though, the depth of this film and the impeccable commentary that was buried in the entertainment and often-cheesy performance from Charlton Heston has wormed its way to the surface of my understanding. Planet of the Apes is the kind of film I enjoy now just as much as I did as when I was a kid, but now for different reasons.

A long journey into the depths of space has left a small group of astronauts thousands of years into the future. Lead by their rough edged captain Taylor (Heston) their ship crashes onto a planet where the air is breathable, but survival seems rough. Particularly when they find out that humans on this planet are treated like animals by the more intelligent and developed species…apes.

Our eclectic heroes.
As I mentioned in my introduction, the brilliance of Planet of the Apes lies in the layers of the film. Sure, guys in costumes parading about on horses living in a society where man is lower rung on the evolutionary ladder is fun to watch as a 60s science fiction flick with its quirky soundtrack and smarmy performance from Heston. Yet the film does an admirable job at really digging into the material. With a script co-written by one of the greatest science fiction writers of all time (the brilliant Rod Serling), Planet of the Apes injects a ton of social commentary about the arrogance of humanity as dominant rulers of our planet and throws in a ton of subtext about the balance of science and religion within culture. This is truly the heart and soul of why this film has gained a universal influence over the years and why a film about man’s subservience to apes isn’t nearly as cheesy as it can be.

This, of course, is not the entire release why Planet of the Apes is so successful. Despite some of the cheesy elements of the film, it carries a significant amount of charm. It’s not a wholly action packed film (this was a day and age when science fiction was it’s own genre and not a subgenre of action films like it is now), but the film moves at a thrilling pace blending some chase sequences into the heavy concept. While I’m not fully convinced of Heston’s acting chops here, the writing does specifically keep his character’s past decently vague, the supporting cast is phenomenal. Especially those required to act through an ape mask like the awesome work of Kim Hunter and Roddy McDowall as our human loving chimps. To be honest, all of it works in fantastical conjunction.

Rattlin' cages.
Nostalgia might play a role in my immense love for this film, but even the film critic in me sees the universality of this classic science fiction romp. It’s a fun film, cheesy at times in the perfect 60s sort of way, but the depth of the script and the memorable characters make Planet of the Apes a film that will last 2,000 years.

Written By Matt Reifschneider

Sunday, July 6, 2014

Rigor Mortis (2014)

Director: Juno Mak
Notable Cast: Chin Siu-Ho, Anthony Chan, Kara Hui, Richard Ng, Lo Hoi-Pang, Nina Paw

Blending genres of film can be a chancy maneuver for any filmmaker. When you’re successful it’s impactful. When you’re not, it’s a clusterfuck. Going into Rigor Mortis I had my qualms. Could the combination of Juno Mak and Takashi Shimizu really produce a film about Chinese hopping vampires and J-Horror popping ghosts that would be as awesome as it sounds? They sure as hell did. Rigor Mortis is one of the most unusual horror films I’ve seen in years and the combination of two countries worth of horror trends is a sight to behold. It’s quirky, brutal, and massively entertaining. Not only is Rigor Mortis one of the best horror films of the year, it’s one of the best films, period.

Life has been a little rough for actor Chin (Chin Siu-Ho) and he’s decided it’s time to end it all. So he rents out a room in a shitty apartment complex where he can commit suicide. Unfortunately, he doesn’t quite get there because this apartment is filled with the supernatural and macabre. Twins haunt his apartment, there is a mother/son duo who randomly wander the halls, and let’s not forget the black magic practioner who has just created his own hopping vampire. With the help of cook/vampire hunter Yau (Anthony Chan), Chin is going to have to step up if he is going to put an end to all of these shenanigans.

Jump for joy! It's good horror this year!
To be perfectly honest, I’m not necessarily familiar with the entire Chinese hopping vampire film. I have yet to experience Mr. Vampire (a film that Rigor Mortis pays massive homage to with its casting) so going into this one I was a bit hesitant that I might not get what Juno Mak was throwing at me. Luckily, it never seemed to hinder my enjoyment of the film. Blending the hopping vampire aspects with some Japanese ghost elements, Rigor Mortis combines some very unique horror elements into one package. Using both subtle jumps and some more straightforward shock elements (gore aplenty and some wicked kills), Juno Mak slathers the film in brutal moments and some intense atmosphere with his rather unhindered visual work, which is beautiful as it is horrifying in many moments. Rigor Mortis is top notch in production values and Juno Mak uses them to their full benefit.

From there (this is where it gets tricky and might not appeal to as many people like it did to me) Rigor Mortis adds in some dark comedy and, believe it or not, some kung fu. The finale is packed with some hero vs. vampire kung fu trickery as is a somewhat humorous and quirky possession sequence where our vampire hunter and black magician have to team up to ‘exorcise’ the twin ghosts from our hero. This adds a bit to the humor, most of which is pretty dry and straightforward. I don’t think the vampire hunter/cook Yau wears a pair of pants for most of the film, for example. Both of these elements might not appeal to horror fan that is going out to purchase this, but for this cult cinema nerd it was impressively integrated into the film and worked to balance out some of the strong dramatic beats and heavy horror elements.

Kitchen accidents happen.
To say that this film ends up as an energetic ball of eclecticism is probably an understatement. It’s an odd combination of talents behind and in front of the camera that makes Rigor Mortis work, but it works in such an odd and brilliantly balanced way that I immediately hit play again when the film ended. For all the things that could have gone wrong with the blended genres, it works damn near perfectly here. Rigor Mortis gets the highest recommendation from me. It’s a blast through and through.

Written By Matt Reifschneider