Sunday, August 31, 2014

Zatoichi's Flashing Sword (1964)

Director: Kazuo Ikehiro
Notable Cast: Shintaro Katsu, Naoko Kubo, Mayumi Nagisa, Takashi Edajima, Tatsuo Endo, Yutaka Nakamura, Bokuzen Hidari, Ikuko Mori

As my journey with Zatoichi continues, I have to be thankful for one thing: at least these films like to throw in some different styles and approaches to keep things interesting. Too much of the same thing can definitely be a bad thing. For the seventh film of the franchise, Zatoichi’s Flashing Sword, the film takes a duel identity to proceed with another adventure for our blind swordsman hero. This entry is handedly the weakest thus far, continuing a downward slide for the series, but it’s saved by a strong third act and some fun set pieces throughout.

Zatoichi (Katsu) is still hunted by his enemies and when a young man shoots him while on the run, he finds refuge in a small river village where a young friend take him into her father’s home. There he finds that her father is at odds with the leader of another village across the river and the villainous yakuza has a deal with the local law enforcement to try and force him out of his business deal for trade on the river. Zatoichi’s presence complicates matters as he is forced to draw his impeccably fast sword once again.

Always keep your distance from a swordsman.
Zatoichi’s Flashing Sword is a tale of two films, stylistically speaking anyway. The two halves go about continuing the story with some substantially different tactics that make the film feel a bit schizophrenic at times. The first half of the film is dedicated to approaching the origin of the plot with more a humorous twist. The opening sequence sees our blind hero sleeping an inn and when three pesky flies continually bother him, he whips out his sword to cut them down in mid-air haphazardly throwing in a ‘damn flies’ line to the stunned residents of the inn. This is an indicator to what the first half will be like and while the plot doesn’t necessarily follow the style (a tense chase in the opening that sees Zatoichi shot rarely carries the tension it needs) the film pushes the slapstick humor forward time and again – whether it works or not.

He'll light you up.
The second half is a different tone altogether. By the half way point of the film, Zatoichi’s Flashing Sword drops the humor for a more traditional swordsman film style and it works much, much better. Here we are finally introduced to the uprising tension between the two businessmen and the plot starts to get a bit more complicated. Granted it felt like Zatoichi was a secondary character in his own film for most of the second act as it tries to establish the players of this swaggering swordsman flick, but the turn in style works. This leads to perhaps the best portion of the film – the final act. At this point director Ikehiro struts his grindhouse stuff (much more aligned with his work in the previous installment Zatoichi and the Chest of Gold) and throws in all kinds of great badass material. Starting with an underwater sword fight (!) the movie moves to the final act that is back dropped at night during a fireworks show where Zatoichi proceeds to fight off an entire clan of samurai to the bright red and blue colors of the entertainment display in the background. It’s awesome and made the rest of the film worth sitting through.

It's gonna be a blood bath.
While Zatoichi’s Flashing Sword continues the downward slide of overall quality for the franchise, the film is almost saved by its last act – a brilliantly shot and well choreographed assassination that makes one of the best sequences in the series. The rest, however, tends to be lacking the characters and plot to be even considered one of the best. The humor is mostly forced and even the plot’s conveniences are not sold well enough for me to recommend it outside of fans of the series. Here’s to hoping that the next installment is a bit more cohesive.

Written By Matt Reifschneider

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Sin City: A Dame to Kill For (2014)

Directors: Robert Rodriguez, Frank Miller
Notable Cast: Mickey Rourke, Jessica Alba, Josh Brolin, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Rosario Dawson, Bruce Willis, Eva Green, Powers Boothe, Dennis Haysbert, Ray Liotta, Christopher Meloni, Jeremy Piven, Christopher Lloyd, Jaime King, Juno Temple, Jamie Chung, Lady Gaga

“Looks like Christmas.” –Marv

A part of me feels a bit bad for Sin City: A Dame to Kill For. Almost a decade after the original wowed and wooed audiences with its ‘ripped from the pages’ visual style and over the top grindhouse quirkiness, this film was almost destined for failure. Ten years is too long and the hype has since worn down as others films took the same concepts and went to new places with them. Match that with the faltering career of cult director Robert Rodriguez who has seen each of his films and/or franchise crumble over time and Sin City 2 was almost bound to fail. A little over $6 million on opening weekend simply proved it. While I still enjoyed my second trip to Basin City in a sort of B-movie way, word of mouth is not going to be pretty for this film either as it feels rushed, flat, and not nearly as charming.

Sin City has always been a boiling pot of corruption, violence, and sex. For a group of its citizens like gambler Johnny (Levitt), maniac Marv (Rourke), the disgruntled Nancy (Alba), or love drunk Dwight (Brolin), it’s a place where their talents can find a way to be used…and when its against some of the more powerful villains of the city like Lord (Green) or Roarke (Booth) then it might just turn brutal.

Poor Nancy.
For a film that took almost a decade to be released, A Dame to Kill For certainly felt rushed. At times it even felt like it might have been a straight to home video sequel to the dynamic original. It’s inferior in every aspect to the original one. The visuals are pretty up to par, but the film tends to almost play it safer this time around in how it uses them; lacking the thoughtful juxtaposition between the blacks, whites, and colors that I would have expected. Perhaps the awe of the style has simply worn thin in the time between the films. Truthfully though, the visuals are still probably the best part of this film and they really do work to pull the audience into the world of Sin City.

The main reason that A Dame to Kill For stumbles out of the gate is the much weaker script. When it kicked off with a brief intro story featuring Mickey Rourke as the iconic Marv from the first film (who actually makes an appearance in every story in the film, which sort of left me baffled to the timing of the stories compared to his fate in Sin City) one could already tell it was going to be rough going. Despite a slew of brilliant actors, the blend of extensive voice over narration and character beats inherently lacks the charm and pacing that would have made this film work. By the time we get to the different stories that wrap around one another, the stumbling structure doesn’t help matters either and the film lacks punch and pace to accomplish any kind of flow. Too much of the plot progressions feel forced and too many of the characters lack the subtle depth to their extreme exteriors. The one exception to this is the character Johnny, played with contagious charisma by Joseph Gordon-Levitt, whose original story plays out with relative ease and ends on a rather bitter sweet moment. Outside of that (and perhaps the scene eating abilites of Powers Boothe as the villain), the rest falls flat. How could an intriguing character like Dwight, played by Clive Owen in the first film, become such a lackluster caricature in this one? Especially with Josh Brolin?

Best surprise of the film: Christopher Lloyd!
While I still had a fair amount of fun diving back into the neo-noir world of Sin City with its vicious over the top violence and fruity one liners, the entire experience felt forced and rushed. Certain characters felt plugged in (Bruce Willis should have never spoken…it would have been a stronger punch) and even the stronger elements like Eva Green as the titular villain seem to drown in the stuttering structure. Robert Rodriguez and Frank Miller must have felt it was necessary to make up for her lack of charisma onscreen with Josh Brolin by just making her nude 90% of the time. It’s choices like this that make A Dame to Kill For a massive disappointment – one of the biggest of the year. 

Written By Matt Reifschneider


Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Expendables 3, The (2014)

Director: Patrick Hughes
Notable Cast: Sylvester Stallone, Jason Statham, Wesley Snipes, Mel Gibson, Dolph Lundgren, Randy Couture, Harrison Ford, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Terry Crews, Kelsey Grammer, Glen Powell, Antonio Banderas, Victor Ortiz, Ronda Rousey, Kellan Lutz, Jet Li, Ivan Kostadinov, and a surprise cameo from Robert Davi

For me, The Expendables franchise is something of a gift. Years of money, time, and dedication to the B and A-grade action icons of three decades colliding in a fun series of films that worship the style and structures of an era that was mostly killed by the likes of Michael Bay and Paul WS Anderson. So when The Expendables 3 decided to add in a slew of young actors and actresses to the fold, I was a bit skeptical. It was deviating from what made me love the first two films. They weren’t broke, were they? Did they have to fix it? Did they really have to appeal to the youth with new hip stars and a PG-13 rating? The short answer is no. No, they didn’t. The resulting mixture of old and new school elements doesn’t always work for this third entry into the supergroup franchise. Yet even with all of the missed punches it’s hard not to have a fun time with the film. So it has that going for it.

After breaking out Doc (Snipes) from a vicious prison, The Expendables set out to finish their latest job – hunting down a guns dealer that turns out to be an old friend Stonebanks (Gibson), who was one of the founding members of the team. In a moment of fear, Barney (Stallone) decides to let his team go and recruit various younger members to help him hunt down his old adversary…but it’s going to take all of them to accomplish the mission.

Some motherfucker is always trying to ice skate uphill.
To an extent, I’m not sure why so many reviewers decided to shit on this entry of the franchise. Sure it’s a step down from both of the previous entries, but I had a massive blast with the film still as a whole…and let’s be honest, did they expect more? In the end, the basis of Expendables 3 is the same as the rest of the franchise: silly one liners, two big action set pieces, and the charisma of seeing your favorite action stars of yester year on screen. If you take it at the basics, then the film works. The one liners are funny, particularly when they note actor nuances like Snipes’ tax evasion punch or Harrison Ford remarking that Bruce Willis is ‘out of the picture,’ and director Patrick Hughes seemingly knows how to shoot an action sequence. The opening of the film and the final act are impressively balanced out when it comes to the action pacing.

A few things prevent The Expendables 3 from reaching the heights it could have.  Firstly, the PG-13 rating hurts. Not because they had to cut out all of the CGI blood, I actually approve of that, but because it hinders from some of the intensity of the performances. For Mel Gibson, he definitely felt hindered as the film’s villain as the character felt a bit muzzled and even when it comes to the final throwdown between him and Stallone you could tell that they were simply playing it safe.

Secondly, the new recruits add too many characters to the fold. The plot idea that the old guys get ‘let go’ because Barney feels like this job is going to get them killed isn’t terrible, but adding in so many new faces with too little to do and less character depth to build on sabotages the entire concept. The film spends damn near half of its time introducing them and getting them together for their first mission and I couldn’t tell you any of their names off hand. Don’t get me wrong I still think Lutz has potential to be an action star if he gets in a good film (see Java Heat and not Hercules), but the rest lack a lot of screen presence. In fact, Ronda Rousey is incredibly terrible in the film. It’s sad to think that because of the script the charismatic Snipes is sidelined for a third of the movie to make room for these folks. The only great thing that comes out of the second act in this movie is Banderas. Seriously, the guy EATS the screen and his ridiculously high-energy rambling and his action sequence at the end slathers on the fun.

The heavy artillery...armed with guns too!
The Expendables 3 is not a perfect film and it’s an obvious step down from the awesomeness of the second film. The first and third acts are still pretty fun (if you’re willing to overlook the horrible CGI) with lots of laughs and action to be had. Too bad the substandard script that features far too many characters and a dragging second act really does bog down the entire experience. I sincerely hope that the franchise survives the leaked copy and this weaker entry because there are a lot of great places for it to go.

Written By Matt Reifschneider

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Zatoichi and the Chest of Gold (1964)

Director: Kazuo Ikehiro
Notable Cast: Shintaro Katsu, Tomisaburo Wakayama, Shogo Shimada, Machiko Hasegawa, Tatsuya Ishiguro, Matasaburo Niwa

“See the joy on their faces? That’d be a pretty good trick for a blind man.” -Zatoichi

With Zatoichi and the Chest of Gold, this long running swordsman series sees the film move further away from their arthouse beginnings and more towards a grindhouse ending. Not that the change can be seen as bad, in fact Chest of Gold is quite entertaining, but it does mean that we get to see our blind anti-hero with some new elements in store for him in this sixth entry. Like the previous entry, Chest of Gold is a not nearly as impactful as one would hope and even loses more of the emotional weight in favor of bigger thrills and kills. It might continue the downward slide of overall quality in the franchise, but it’s hard not to love this film still.

Zatoichi (Shintaro Katsu) returns to a small village to pay respects to a man he killed years earlier, only to find himself under suspicion from the farmers for being the man who stole their tax payment on its way to the magistrate. To clear his name, he will have to uncover a larger conspiracy involving an old yakuza friend and a few corrupt officials. Can Zatoichi accomplish his task before his head winds up on the cutting block?

Zatoichi. Hanging out. Being badass.
Zatoichi’s newest adventure is perhaps his most basic one yet, but that doesn’t stop the film from being some sword slashing entertainment. Chest of Gold adds in a slew of new tricks to make it more thrilling including a director who is less about the subtle emotions and more about big sweeping character gestures. This continues the entire ‘Zatoichi is a Badass’ theme from Zatoichi on the Road as he continually attempts to do his saintly work. This includes even more sword fighting, of which the series is adapting more complex choreography and for the first time in the series - gore, and a moment where Zatoichi outwits a rival ronin in speed to cut a coin in half. It also ends with a final showdown with the ronin (Katsu’s real life brother who would go on to play the lead in the Lone Wolf and Cub samurai series) that might be the most exciting and vicious one yet.

Despite the fun and increased amount of violence in the film, Zatoichi and the Chest of Gold does lack a bit of the depth needed to sell it. Outside of the continued brilliance of Katsu in the lead role and his scarred brother as the hired hand of the villains, not a lot of the characters actually stand out here. For a franchise known for its deep thoughtful characters and interactions, Chest of Gold is pretty flimsy with both as it introduces you to a ton of throw away characters and a hierarchy of villains that fails to balance out to Zatoichi’s badassness. Take it for what it is though because most of it didn’t affect my enjoyment of the picture.

Perhaps the biggest concern I have with Chest of Gold is the continued slide of quality for the franchise. This film is still a damn fine swordsman picture with plenty of great moments that Zatoichi/samurai fans will eat up, but the overall script quality seems rushed. It’s an entertaining film overall and the continued presence of Katsu sells it.

Written By Matt Reifschneider

Friday, August 22, 2014

Quiet Ones, The (2014)

Director: John Pogue

Notable Cast: Jared Harris, Olivia Cooke, Sam Claflin, Eric Richards, Rory Fleck-Byrne

Possession films seem to be all the rage at this point, but just how far can one go with creative spins on a genre that seemingly comes off as the ‘same old, same old?’ I had some decent expectations out of The Quiet Ones, not because it’s another possession film, but because of the logo in front of the film: Hammer. While the old school horror company disappeared for a number of decades, their resurgence has produced some solid old school feeling horror flicks. Unfortunately, The Quiet Ones is easily the weakest film of their new slate.

Joseph (Harris) is using his theories of parapsychology to try and cure Jane Harper (Cooke.) He assembles a small team, including cameraman Brian (Claflin,) to document and help with the process, but what they will find in Jane Harper may not adhere to scientific explanation. What they find may end up killing them all.

"Don't mess with me, son. I played Sherlock's evil counterpart."
Hammer’s last film, the enigmatic The Woman in Black, was a blend of modern style and old school atmosphere that rocked the blend and hit one home. Even though I didn’t give that film a great review when I first saw it, since then I’ve grown to really appreciate what they accomplished with it. The Quiet Ones attempts to go 2 for 2 with that same concept as it attempts to blend modern techniques and old school storytelling. The results are simply more awkward than effective. Writer/director John Pogue (known mostly for writing some fun B-grade horror flicks like The Skulls and Ghost Ship, but also for directing and writing Quarantine 2) doesn’t get the blend right this time around. There are moments of great atmosphere and subtle character work to be found particularly surrounding a fun performance from Jared Harris, but the rest tends to feel downright cliché and often illogical. An entire sequence where Jane disappears has the entire cast stumbling around in the dark from the viewpoint of the camera that Brian is holding and it utterly feels like a waste of time. Seriously? That’s the best scares you can come up with?

That being said, the film also misses out on the key to make this work – the characters. The title refers to the group of people performing this experiment and while the film does an admirable job creating a roller coaster character for Jane that the audience consistently hooks into, it’s the main character of Brian and his cohorts that get the shaft. His two fellow college experimenters feel like broad stroke characters and their interactions often result in exposition rather than real moments of connection. It undermines a lot of the doubt and atmosphere that The Quiet Ones attempts to create and the film has to jump massive logistical moments, particularly in the third act, to get us to the next scary sequence…which often comes off as more cliché than not anyway. Instead of the formulaic progression that the film uses, they should have pushed even further towards the spiraling tension between the team.

As I mentioned, the scares tend to be fairly cliché in the end. If you’ve seen a few possession films, you’ve seem a majority of The Quiet Ones. Occasionally the film succeeds in throwing in a handful of solid jolts, but even those seem illogical at times. A random connection between the doll and Jane indicated with a knife has a nice moment in the latter half, but it left me wondering why it happened at all as it never seems to be cohesive with the rest of the film and the scares it was giving the audience.

This was my reaction to Furby.
The Quiet Ones isn’t a terrible film, in fact it’s a perfectly serviceable possession flick that does step over many of the shitty straight to home video flicks of the same genre in the last few years. It just also so happens to be a scattered script that lacks the characters to sell the idea, the scares to hook the audience, and the atmosphere to feel like a classic Hammer flick. I didn’t hate it, but I certainly expected more out of it particularly with the potential of its concept.

Written By Matt Reifschneider

Thursday, August 14, 2014

All Cheerleaders Die (2014)

Directors: Lucky McKee, Chris Siverston
Notable Cast: Caitlin Stasey, Sianoa Smit-McPhee, Brooke Butler, Amanda Grace Cooper, Reanin Johannink, Tom Williamson

As a big fan of Lucky McKee’s films, I was eager to see what he would have his sleeve after the controversial (and astoundingly effective) The Woman. When I found it he would be co-directing a film called All Cheerleaders Die, I felt a little unsure. As a director he has always throw in subtext about feminism and the strength of women in his films, but this seemed like this might be the one time he sold out to the mainstream media. Shockingly though, for a movie about killer undead cheerleaders, All Cheerleaders Die contains all the elements that have come to make his films great – all the while paying homage to the unlikeliest of horror film eras…the 90s and early 00s.

Maddy (Stasey) is looking to make senior year her year. After the unlikely death of her friend Alexis (Cooper) the year prior, she is looking to right the wrongs that had happened and ends up joining the cheerleading squad. She has an underhanded plan though to make the guilty pay and nothing…not even death…is going to stop her from her goal.

Team is spelled with 'I' in this case.
As it would turn out, All Cheerleaders Die is technically a remake. It’s a remake of a 2001 film of the same name made by the same two guys, McKee and Sivertson. I have not seen the original film so comparisons will probably not happen in this review unless its an accident. It does, however, explain some of the stylistic choices of this film to homage the dark ages of horror in the late 90s and the 00s. The entire teens in high school plot focusing on cheerleaders and football players seems something that would have come right out of the flood of Scream knock offs that happened in this era, just ten years later. Luckily, the combination of McKee and Sivertson seem to understand a lot of how these tropes work and they throw in just enough dark humor and modern techniques that the film almost comes out as a parody of that time period. The opening sequence is done ‘found footage style’ but it builds a nice intro that quickly ends on one of the greatest deaths for horror in 2014 (and being quite hilarious at that.) While some of the pitfalls of that era plague this film (shallow secondary characters and a reliance on high school issues like how important image is and bullshit like that), the general strength of the execution helps out the film immensely and All Cheeleaders Die comes off as a charming film with much more subtext then expected.

It’s this subtext that really allows All Cheerleaders Die to be much more than just ‘another teen horror movie.’ Like most of McKee’s other flicks, it contains a substantial amount of exploration into issue that affect young women in today’s society. Everything from the use physical appearance as an expectation of quality of person to rape. In fact, the film spends a majority of its time exploring these young cheerleaders and jocks in an effort to really build this thoughtful relationship with the audience. The cheerleaders don’t even die until halfway into the film and the real horror doesn’t really start until that point either. From there though, it gets a strong dose of great campy horror elements that add a lot of fun to the proceedings including a fantastic third act that makes all of the character building worth it.

It's like "Charmed" but, you know, good.
All Cheerleaders Die is the kind of film that really grew on me. When I first watched it, I enjoyed it for its strong throwback elements and impressive execution by the directing team. The more it sat with me after the fact, the more I liked it though. Now that I have spun my copy twice I have to say it’s one of my favorite horror films of the year. It’s not a film for everyone with its dry, dark humor and weird cliché twists, but for those willing to go into it with an open mind I highly recommend it.

Written By Matt Reifschneider

Den, The (2014)

Director: Zachary Donohue
Notable Cast: Melanie Papalia, David Schlachtenhaufen, David Shapiro, Anna Margaret Hollyman

Just when you thought that found footage horror had lost all the charm of its gimmick in limiting the visuals of film, The Den pops up to take it one step further. This little slasher horror flick tells its story completely through video screen captures on various mobile devices. While I wasn’t necessarily sold on the film by the end, the concept remains fairly unique and my respect goes to director Zachary Donohue and the other writers for even attempting such a ridiculously limiting gimmick. The results might be a rather mixed bag, but considering how found footage horror has already cannibalized itself into a corner then I will take a fresh spin.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Zatoichi on the Road (1963)

Director: Kimiyoshi Yasuda
Notable Cast: Shintaro Katsu, Shiho Fujimura, Ryuzo Shimada, Reiko Fujiwara, Matasaburo Niwa

“He has something to show this blind man, he said. I’d like to see that.” –Zatoichi

After the phenomenal fourth entry into the series, it could only be assumed that the series would have to head down even if it’s just a fraction of quality. For the fifth entry of the series, Zatoichi on the Road, the series heads further towards being serialized and moving away from the series of events and characters that linked the first four films.  It’s not a horrible thing as this entry is still highly entertaining through and through, but this film certainly doesn’t carry the emotional impact that some of the previous entries did…despite some valiant efforts to do so.

Like always, Zatoichi (Shintaro Katsu) is on the road being escorted to Doyoma as a guest of the yakuza boss there when he stumbles upon a dying old man. He promises to the old man to take a young woman Mitsu (Shiho Fujimura)  home to Edo who is on the run from some samurai. To make matters worse, he is being chased himself by some assassins trying to prevent him from reaching Doyoma. It’s going to be one of those weeks.

Snack attack!
While being the weakest of the entries into the franchise thus far, Zatoichi on the Road is still a pretty fun flick. It lends itself to some comparisons to the first film, particularly in the plot line where Zatoichi is being drafted into a gang war between two rival clans, but the execution is drastically different. Zatoichi on the Road pulls away from the stronger emotional punches and focuses more on a pulpy approach. Instead of being a film about Zatoichi the Tragic, it’s a film about Zatoichi the Badass. There is more action and Zatoichi spends a good portion of his time acting more like a hero than an anti-hero. Don’t get me wrong, his character is most certainly a sword slashing badass that’s punctuated by scenes where he kills three men while sitting or getting a drink of water in the middle of the big finale sword battle. Luckily the script is twisty-turny enough to earn some of its own dramatic beats (Zatoichi’s almost fatherly interactions with the young woman and the young yakuza at the end for example), but this one feels more like entertainment than the previous entries.

Perhaps the biggest change though comes in the director’s chair of the film. Yasuda gears the film towards that more entertaining path, but he certainly lacks the visual flair of some of the previous directors. He is helped by a great cast to add some charm to the proceedings, Shintaro is brilliant as always and Fujimura adds a lot of great balance to his role. While the villains here are not quite as good as the last couple we’ve seen in the franchise, it’s hard to say that they don’t aptly do their job though.

Odds on Zatoichi the Badass.
Zatoichi on the Road is my least favorite of the franchise thus far, but it’s still a decently entertaining ride. It still contains some really strong character moments and the action is fantastically done, but it misses the emotional and tragic themes that pushed the other films into being instant classics.

Written By Matt Reifschneider

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Robocop (2014)

Director: Jose Padilha
Notable Cast: Joel Kinnaman, Michael Keaton, Gary Oldman, Samuel L Jackson, Abbie Cornish, Jackie Earle Haley

Hollywood continually makes one mistake with a lot of their remakes. Just because a film has a die hard cult following, doesn’t mean that it’s going to translate well for a modern audience and that the cult audience may not take kindly to a new ‘vision’ of the art they so appreciate. Take this Robocop remake as a prime example. No matter how much you try to give it a modern spin with talk about drones and man vs technology, the core concept and execution of the original film just couldn’t be done a second time. Call it ‘right time, right place’ or whatever, but this reincarnation of the Robocop legacy seemingly falters in almost every category to the original. It has its own strengths, sort of, but even then it’s hard to justify this film overall.

Murphy (Kinnaman) is a good hard working cop with a wonderful family, but when he uncovers a larger crime syndicate operating in his city he is martyred for his cause. That’s not the end of his story though as a military conglomerate OmniCorp and a scientist (Oldman) on the brink of new research take Murphy and give him the latest in cybernetic bodily advancements to keep him on the streets fighting crime.

Should have kept him silver.
Director Jose Padilha stunned with his awesome Elite Squad police drama flicks, but outside of a few moments a lot of his vision and style seems lost in Robocop. Most of this has to do with the story, which tends to try and focus on too many elements. There are three major plot lines that exist in the film that Robocop attempts at intertwining and has a lot of trouble doing so. Firstly there is the Murphy and family plot. This version of Robocop spends a lot more time establishing Murphy as a father and husband to increase the presence of his struggle at being human and against his robotic protocol in the latter half of the film. While this portion does tend to be the strongest of the three plot progressions, it still struggles to find a balance against the other two. Secondly, Robocop attempts to pull on the political and social questions about the use of technology and drones in modern warfare. While I appreciate the concepts being brought into a mainstream film, it’s pretty surface level stuff here and never really digs into the matter like it might have. As is, the ‘robophobia’ spin feels more like a last minute addition than a true driving ideological force to the film. Finally, the last plot line is the actual plot that concerns Murphy’s discovery of a crime conspiracy. As the film desperately tries to balance all of these psychological and social themes, it sort of forgets that there needs to be a damn villain in the film. So it stumbles around with police corruption, corporate puppeteering and espionage, and gun smuggling. It feels like the film is never sure which direction it wants to actually go with the plot and so it sort of just meanders about between a slew of different paths…which is ultimately a frustrating endeavor for the audience.

Take what you will from the massively hit or miss script, but this is a fucking Robocop film. Even Robocop 2 had a mediocre script that was made wholly enjoyable by its comic book execution and awesome action. Not so much here, folks. Even though I loved the realistic tone that Padilha used in his Elite Squad movies, it doesn’t quite work as well here particularly with the massive amounts of cheesy CGI thrown in. The ED-209 battles are modern day spectacle that lack tension and the faster pace of the action lends itself to feeling too much like a superhero film rather than a science fiction action flick. There is one piece that I felt was pretty unique and that’s the siege on the gun runners that’s done in the dark and punctuated by muzzle flashes and the red lights on Robocop’s suit. Outside of that though, I wasn’t wholly impressed here either.

"What did you do to my franchise?!"
By all means, Robocop is not a terrible film. It’s a serviceable action thriller with some science fiction twists, but it just has the terrible fortune of being compared to one of the greatest cult films ever. It tries to do too much, it loses much of the satirical nature of the franchise previously (particularly in its neutered PG-13 format), and the modern spin on the direction makes it feel more like a video game than a representation of reality that it should be a parallel towards. Quite simply, it misses all the opportunities that it could have improved upon.  

Written By Matt Reifschneider 

Project A (1983)

Director: Jackie Chan
Notable Cast: Jackie Chan, Yuen Biao, Sammo Hung, Dick Wei

The combination of early Jackie Chan stunt extravaganza, a cast featuring Yuen Biao and Sammo Hung, and a plot about a Navy plan to take down some vicious pirates sounds pretty awesome. So don’t question the script issues and the million-miles-per-hour pacing and do what I did with Project A and just run with it. If you do, you will find Project A to be a spectacular action flick filled with colorful characters and fun fight sequences. It’s the way that a film like this should be enjoyed whether or not it’s perfect.

Dragon Ma (Jackie Chan) is quickly rising through the ranks as a Navel officer, but their lack of success as a group in catching some dastardly pirates has left them in some hot water with the budgeting folks. When many of the officers in the Navy are forced to retrain in the police force under Inspector Hong Tin-Tsu (Yuen Biao), Dragon Ma butts heads with the idea. When a chance encounter with an old friend Fats (Sammo Hung) has Dragon Ma in a place to uncover the pirate layer, can he put aside his own ego to get the job done?

Heroes three.
When one becomes a film critic (whether it be professionally or not), you will always have battles with yourself over specific kinds of film. Project A is the kind of film that almost gave me schizophrenia while watching it. One part of me, the critic, heavily questioned the random flow of the film, the obvious set ups for gimmick riddled action/stunt set pieces, and for the rather flat character arcs of our main hero and his two ‘sidekicks.’ Project A is not a perfect film. It’s like the flick is two films mashed together – the first half being a Naval/Police rivalry with comedic beats and the second half being a much more serious action flick about cops and pirates. It starts a lot of plot elements and quickly shifts them in different directions. The entire Naval/Police rivalry seems dropped too quickly in the script despite the great set up. The inclusion of Fats (played with delightful cheese by Sammo Hung) shows up much too late and adds little in the way of strong character growth for our hero. Even the main pirate spin on the film almost seems like an afterthought until the last third of the flick where they finally introduce us to the charismatic pirate king and his island. As a critic, Project A was almost frustrating at times.

This, of course, is the critic in me speaking and too often over analyzing films. The other part of me consumed this movie vigorously and haphazardly. This is the 15 year old that fell in love with martial arts film and Jackie Chan in particular. For this part of my psyche, Project A is the perfect film. The slapstick humor is handled to perfection by Jackie Chan and his phenomenal stunt team, the charismatic combination of Jackie Chan, Yuen Biao, and Sammo Hung is like watching magic happen in front of you (particularly when they have to team up at the end to fight the beastly pirate king,) and to top it off – the gimmick riddled stunt work is top of the line stuff showcasing Jackie Chan at the height of his career in the 80s doing some of the most jaw dropping bits you have ever seen. Whether it’s the police bust where Chan and Biao have to fight their way through a high end gambling hall or the before mentioned 3 on 1 throwdown with the pirate king, the action in Project A is beyond impressively choreographed and spectacular in execution. I was ecstatic just watching it all.

Sometimes time just slips through your hands.
Going into Project A, you have to make a decision. Am I going to watch this critically or am I going to run with it at full speed and see where it takes me? One will leave you a bit disappointed overall, but the other will leave you trying to see if you can leap from a chandelier onto a staircase, doctor bills be damned.  I highly suggest watching it in the latter mindset. Sure some of the writing and characters might not sit well with you, but it’s part of the outrageous fun of this film. Set sail and let the wind carry you on a pirate adventure.

Written By Matt Reifschneider

Monday, August 11, 2014

Zatoichi the Fugitive (1963)

Director: Tokuzo Tanaka
Notable Cast: Shintaro Katsu, Yutaro Hojo, Masayo Banri, Miwa Takada, Toru Abe, Koichi Mizuhara, Sachiko Murase

When going into a franchise, usually by three or four films in, there will be a dip in quality or at least a pretty significant shift away from what the style of earlier entries. For the Zatoichi franchise, the fourth film might actually be my favorite and it’s just as striking as the debut. There is definitely a few shifts in style from the last few, but it actually works in the films benefit instead of detracting away from the core elements that make the series great. It’s not a film that all fans of the first three will agree with me on, but dammit, Zatoichi the Fugitive is both highly entertaining and emotionally impactful.

Zatoichi (Shintaro Katsu), while continuing to journey on his way through the Japanese summer heat, finds himself being hunted for a price on his head. To discover just why he has now been labeled a fugitive, he travels to a village where warring yakuza bosses are intent on overthrowing one another by scheming with a vicious ronin who just so happens to be married to a woman from Zatoichi’s past…

This fourth entry starts off like a serialized entry of the series by having Zatoichi kill a would be assassin who wants to claim the price on his head for his mother. This leads Zatoichi to the village of our villainous mob of yakuza where he begins to unravel a tense situation that directs him towards a trap as he tries to help those of righteous cause. Shintaro Katsu once again pushes the character of Zatoichi into some new territories where he tries to right the wrongs of this small village, bringing his dark and tragic past with him. The film is actually carried by some strong secondary characters, including a boiling performance from Yutaro Hojo as the arrogant ronin, and a few very intriguing pieces including his attempts to straighten out the path of two star crossed lovers.

Like the previous films before it, Zatoichi the Fugitive relies on a thread from one of the previous films to give it some emotional weight. This time around it’s the return of Zatoichi’s love from the first film Otane, played with a tragic soul by Masayo Banri. This twist appears well into the film and really adds a nice emotional streak to the already strong script and connects the films so that Zatoichi’s arc becomes something of an extension. By the end of the film, she becomes a catalyst that really deepens the epic story of Zatoichi in a new way that pays off in dividends.

It's a blood "bath." Get it? See what I did there?
I did speak of a few shifts in style for Zatoichi the Fugitive earlier and they add a new layer that audiences haven’t seen before in the series. Firstly, this is the first film to pull away from the dense atmosphere of all of the previous entries. Even though it comes from the same director has New Tale, he moves the film towards a higher energy and speed that really makes the film feel more electric. He still throws in plenty of great visuals and slick camera work to sell it, but it’s a new style that works nonetheless. Secondly, the film significantly jacks up the action. Not only is their more action throughout the film, including a fun little sumo romp, but the finale is perhaps the series’ biggest action set piece yet where our anti-hero must slice n’ dice his way through a small army to seek his prey. The finale is simply phenomenal.

While it might be easy to see why some folks wouldn’t enjoy this entry as much (the move away from atmosphere and a slightly more consumable approach to the writing), the changes were brilliantly played out by director Tanaka. This film may not be quite as tragic nor deep, but the blend of action and emotional depth to a rather basic premise is executed at the top of the line. I would even go as far as to say that it’s my favorite of the franchise thus far because of this ability. Here’s to hoping that Zatoichi on the Road is able to match this fine entry. 

Written By Matt Reifschneider

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Swelter (2014)

Director: Keith Parmer
Notable Cast: Lennie James, Grant Bowler, Catalina Sandino Mereno, Freya Tingley, Alfred Molina, Jean-Claude Van Damme, Josh Henderson, Daniele Favilli

While the golden age of the western has long since passed, by decades even, the genre occasionally arrives in bursts. As of lately, there seems to be a rather steady stream of direct to video westerns that have hit the shelves and found their way into Redboxes across the US. For the most part, I skip out on these films. The genre doesn’t offer enough for me to truly go out of my way to partake in most of these trashy flicks. So when I stuck in the new thriller Swelter that arrived on my doorstep, I was a bit shocked to see it was a modern western. While it’s not quite as awesome as The Proposition or Red Hill in terms of awesome modern westerns, I was pleasantly surprised with the film that greeted me. It’s flawed in some of its writing, but dammit I have to give it a big ‘A’ for effort.

When four criminals arrive in the small town of Baker just outside of Las Vegas, they start a ruckus for the simple folk. A local sheriff (James), a man with a bullet in his head and no memory of his past, will have to figure out just what these semi-homicidal men want from the small town before they burn it to the ground…and discover a past he has been running from for far too long.

Building on the tropes of the western genre, Swelter takes the modern thriller and mixes it with an old school sensibility that works. Director/writer Keith Parmer seemingly knows the western genre in and out as he piles on homages throughout the film. The thriller aspects of the film, think of a slightly B-grade A History of Violence for starters, works to keep the western elements modern. Most of the heist elements are done in flashback form, outside of the films introduction, but it adds some nice depth with strong character interactions.

"What do you mean no one really knows me? I've been in a ton of films!"
Our hero is a torn soul, played by the versatile cult actor Lennie James (you might know him from Blood Brothers favorites like Snatch or Lockout) looking to escape his heist heavy past. His strong lead work is counterbalanced by some broad stroke secondary characters that help to build an old school spaghetti western feel. The four villains of the film steal most of the scenes though with their quirks, the insane young one has a nice rattlesnake tail that he occasionally rattles and Jean-Claude Van Damme puts in a nice memorable performance here as the one desperately looking for redemption out of the pack. If anything, Keith Parmer populates the film with a ton of fun characters that make the film fly by.

Yet at the core, Swelter is still only an 8 million dollar film so it succumbs to a few B-grade elements. The last act tends to be a bit of a jumble as Parmer tries to throw in some more artful moments. Some don’t work, a church burning is great symbolism for the cannibalism of the town but really doesn’t flow or make sense in the narrative, and some do like the strong use of a symbolic heat wave in the story that builds some nice tension. Had the film had double it’s budget, Parmer might have been able to really build this film up even stronger – particularly with visuals since he obviously has an eye for visual storytelling that’s hindered by its funds. The action is solid for a low cost western though and it works much better than expected, but overall the film does waver under the weight of its own ambitions.

Enjoying life as a supporting character.
As is, Swelter is a pretty strong A-grade B-movie modern western. It’s far from perfect, many of the secondary actors struggle compared to the slew of cult favorites here (Molina does his best with a one note character) and the story tends to want to go further in many places that it simply doesn’t have time or money for, but compared to most of the western direct to home video trash that is being released this is some great entertainment. Keith Parmer has a strong future ahead of him in genre filmmaking and he will be one that the Blood Brothers keep an eye on.

Written By Matt Reifschneider