Saturday, January 31, 2015

Hellions (2015)

No Poster Art Currently Available
Director: Bruce McDonald
Notable Cast: Chloe Rose, Robert Patrick, Rossif Sutherland, Rachel Wilson, Luke Bilyk

Hellions opens up with Chloe Rose as her character Dora wandering down a hospital hallway dazed, slowly maneuvering about, a question of ‘what the hell just happened to me’ etched onto her young face. After the movie was finished, I also wandered down the theater hallway dazed, slowly maneuvering about, a question of ‘what the hell just happened to me’ etched on my face. In a way, it’s an almost brilliant way to bring things full circle in this Halloween gone insane horror flick. If anything, it’s damn near the only thing it accomplished. The rest however, might be one of those films I would classify as ‘clusterfuck.’

Dora (Rose) just had a major awkward bomb dropped on her. She’s pregnant. As a 17 year old living in a small Canadian town, this is going to be huge. To help deal with the stress of big decisions and telling her family and boyfriend, she decides she just needs to have some time to still be a kid – by heading out with her boyfriend on Halloween night. Unfortunately, there seems to be a few demonic little trick or treaters that want to make sure she stays home…and doesn’t leave alive.

She's looking forward to a time beyond this movie.
The concept is simple. In fact, during the first 20 minutes or so the thought occurred that perhaps this would have been a pretty fun and humorous/horror-ous Tales from the Crypt episode to enjoy. Yet, I knew from watching one of Bruce McDonald’s previous films Pontypool that this would most certainly become weird. Weird doesn’t even explain the flow of consciousness and utterly inept proceedings from there. For the rest of the film, only an hour mind you, Hellions becomes an exercise in unintentional humor and random usage of a variety of genre styles. In pieces, this might have worked. As a whole, it’s completely unusable.

There is a certain sense that McDonald wanted to create the same sensory overload of the old school Italian giallo, but retain the Halloween inspired scares of a home invasion flick like Them. Trying to birth the two together proves to be an endeavor that Hellions neither has the budget for, nor the artistic sense to accomplish. What we end up with is a horror movie with so little scares or tension that it doesn’t work as that home invasion thriller and so little ability to weave symbolism or cohesive narrative into the fever dream portion that a majority of the audience was laughing their way through it. The poor dialogue delivery, the Goblin-esque synth score that never feels quite fitting, nonsensical plot progressions to introduce more Hellions, less believability that our heroine will ever find sanity let alone a chance of survival, and an ending that actually makes even less sense for all of the previous proceedings…simply undermines anything good that could have come out of this film.

"I've seen Return to Oz. I know you!"
If there is anything that I can say about Hellions, it’s that I had quite a great laugh. The poor gentlemen next to me in my Sundance screening tried so desperately to understand the movie throughout that I almost felt pity for him. By half way through, I gave up even trying to make sense of it or look for the deeper meaning in exploding mine field pumpkin patches and doctors who think stapling neck wounds with a staple gun is a good idea. I just accepted it as the unintentional comedy that it became. I still left the showing, wondering just how could a film with so much potential blatantly miss the mark.  Even then I couldn’t help but giggle at the ridiculousness of what I had been shown. I enjoyed myself. Even if it was for all the wrong reasons. Hellions is a botched film. Hopefully that means I have already gotten ‘worst horror film of the year’ out of the way in January.

Written By Matt Reifschneider

Friday, January 30, 2015

Wild Card (2015)

Director: Simon West
Notable Cast: Jason Statham, Michael Angarano, Dominik Garcia-Lorido, Milo Ventimiglia, Hope Davis, Max Casella, Stanley Tucci, Jason Alexander, Sofia Vergara, Anne Heche

Jason Statham’s career has veered into some interesting places in the last few years. While I’m sure most folks will never seem him more than an action star who kicked off The Transporter franchise and sits as Stallone’s right hand man in The Expendables, he isn’t afraid to add touches of other genres to his résumé. I was initially a bit frightened by Wild Card for being essentially dumped onto VOD, but after seeing the film it seems perfectly clear. This is not a film that would have done all that well for him theatrically in the US. Wild Card certainly contains some legitimate action set pieces, but this film is more akin to his films like Blitz and Redemption than Crank.

Nick Wild (Statham) is a ‘security services provider’ in Las Vegas – ergo he beats down people for money. He dreams of a better life though, even if he strongly believes it’s out of reach. When a friend of his finds herself beaten and raped though, he sets off to see if he can straighten things out…the only way he knows how to do it.

Give him a hand!
Wild Card has some very big names behind it. Not only is it a Statham vehicle, but it’s helmed by director Simon West, written by Academy Award winner William Goldman (from his novel), uses fight choreography from Hong Kong legend Corey Yuen, and stars a slew of recognizable faces in some rather small bit parts. Don’t let that list of names sway you though, the film is not nearly as robust as it would seem. In fact, like the previously mentioned Blitz and Redemption, Wild Card is far more of a character thriller film for Statham than anything else.

On the flip side, it’s kind of obvious that this film wants to fall in-between the cracks of being a dramatic thriller and the fun action film most people are used to seeing from Statham. Simon West, who seems to be on a sort of resurgence of his career lately, handles it remarkably well and slow slides between character driving monologues and glass shattering fist-to-cuffs. Perhaps the biggest issue though with the film is it sort of lacks a sense of urgency or danger for Mr. Wild as he tumbles into some bad situations that seemingly only get worse. The film is almost too confident and small scale for that. When we find out a hit squad is out for him and he tells his quirky new friend that there is a good chance he will be murdered today, we don’t quite believe it. Namely because…well, this is a Statham vehicle and nothing previous has lead us to believe that he can even be hurt, let alone left for dead in a gutter.

This is mostly due to the rather awesome, if not a little brief, action set pieces present in the film. The combination of choreography Corey Yuen and Statham worked impressively well in the Transporter films and it continues to work here. He uses bar utensils, his obviously steel plated head butts, credit cards, and even a spoon at one point to repel mini-armies of touch baddies. West tends to use a little too much slow motion in these (perhaps to give it a more artsy touch or elongate the matter since he so swiftly dispatches of these muscle heads), but it is a nice break from the character beats in the film.

Why hasn't Statham been cast as a superhero yet? He already is one.
All in all, Wild Card is not a perfect film although it was a much more thoughtful film then I expected…which, of course, I had nightmares that it was as bad as Parker. The fights are fun and surprisingly violent, the character work is much deeper then the normal film for Statham, and in the end I was massively entertained throughout. Sure, it lacks a bit of ‘oomph’ to its plot and feels like it needed to go even bigger in the finale, but I would say most Statham fans will find plenty to enjoy in the film…even if Lionsgate knows it’s not the action film to fill seats in a wide theatrical release.

Written By Matt Reifschneider

Thursday, January 29, 2015

No Tears for the Dead (2015)

Director: Lee Jeong-beom
Notable Cast: Jang Dong-gun, Kim Min-hee, Brian Tee, Kim Hee-won, Kim Joon-seong

I think at this point it is safe to say that director Lee Jeong-beom is the next John Woo. His last film, The Man from Nowhere, brought me down like a man slit at the ankle tendons with a knife. It was a spectacular action flick to say the least. His follow up, No Tears for the Dead, is of a similar vein and in similar caliber – pun fully intended. It’s not quite as good as the previously mentioned film, but that doesn’t mean that it’s not a hellaciously awesome action flick.

Gon (Jang Dong-gun) works as a hitman for a family in the US, but when his most recent hit goes awry and he ends up killing a little girl his cohorts send him off to Seoul to find the mother and get rid of her too. Upon arrival though, he finds himself too guilt stricken to be unable to finish the job. This, like always, makes it tough as various other killers are sent to finish it…and him.

You would think you would plug the ear closest to the gun, no?
The John Woo reference in the opening is there for a reason. Namely because No Tears for the Dead fits right in with the heroic bloodshed and ‘killer with a conscious’ plot he loved to use with his mainstay actor Chow Yun Fat. Thusly, if you love films like The Killer or even the John Woo-esque The Replacement Killers then this is a must see, must have, must watch on repeat kind of film for you. The intent is most certainly there to be associated with those kinds of films.

Outside of the plot that we have seen before in a hundred other action movies, No Tears for the Dead is a proficient study in how to take deep character work and balance it with ferocious action set pieces. The film moves with an interesting structure as it is almost cut into two parts. The first part is all about the character and plot build. Seriously, outside of the opening hit and one (might I add extraordinarily badass) car wreck the first hour is dedicated to crafting the foundational plot of the film. Jang Dong-gun and Kim Min-hee both possess a strong ability to craft subtle acting with the rather broad stroke plot progressions of the script and director Lee has a real knack for keeping the visuals and color palettes varied and effective to make sure that the audience never loses focus. They know it’s going to be an hour before we start to pick up the energy so they do everything in their power to make it worth it.

That's a good look on him.
The second hour is damn near wholly dedicated to unrelentless ass kicking. This is the truthful highlight of this film and boy, oh boy, is it a highlight. Gun battles, hand to hand combat, a brief knife fight, a few explosions, and the ever awesome Brian Tee as our counter villain for Jang Dong-gun to face off against. The violence is extreme in a lot of the moments – there is a knee to the head of a gentleman that might be one of the most brutal things you see this year – and there is plenty of gore to spurt out with it. It works both from an action junkie standpoint and from the cinephile standpoint that is thanks to the generous character beats in the first half and a few key moments to bring our heroes and villains full circle.

Peek a boo!
If you saw and loved The Man from Nowhere or simply love the heroic bloodshed films from John Woo, then No Tears for the Dead comes with only the highest recommendations. It’s not quite as proficient at the same aspects of Lee Jeong-beom’s last film, but it’s still a massively entertaining and well-built action machine featuring some stellar performances and badass anti-heroics. No Tears for the Dead comes with a massive Blood Brothers splatter of approval.

Written By Matt Reifschneider

Monday, January 26, 2015

Brotherhood of Blades (2015)

Director: Lu Yang
Notable Cast: Chang Chen, Chin Shih-chieh, Ye Qing, Wang Qianyuan, Li Dongxue, Nie Yuan, Zhao Lixin, Qiao Lei, Yang Yi, Gu Dian, Ye Xiangming, Yang Xiaobo

The wuxia genre has seen its fair share of evolutionary changes and most recently it has taken to being a rather artistic and epic affair thanks to filmmakers like Zhang Yimou. There have been a few films that harken back towards the more classic (and pulpy) wuxia style like 14 Blades, but it’s usually either one or the other. Rarely does one find a film that blends a slick modern visual style of modern Hong Kong and the classic old school foundations for the genre. Not only does Brotherhood of Blades do that, but it also efficiently blends the two in such a way as to be a massively entertaining action packed ride and a heartfelt and dramatic tale.

As the governing body of the Chinese government desperately looks to weed out corruption, they task three of their best Imperial Assassins (Chang Chen, Chin Shih-chieh, Ye Qing) to find and eliminate the head of the movement. Unknown to them, the assassins’ task is steeped in political upheaval and their mission will leave them on the wrong end of the blade.

Brothers in arms.
To throw a bit of context to this review, it was completely unexpected that this film would be such a phenomenal piece of work. Sure, it was nominated for a handful of Golden Horse awards (the Hong Kong version of the Oscars) in a slew of categories like best actor, supporting actor, action choreography and make-up and costume design, but usually that means the film is more artsy and less dynamic. Brotherhood of Blades is DYNAMIC. All caps. It works on so many levels that I may have watched it three times in one day. In a row. On repeat.

The film, first and foremost, solidifies itself as a classic style wuxia. The story is based on loyalty, betrayal, love, and honor as we follow the rather edgy lives of three ‘brothers’ in the Imperial Assassins. We see them betrayed by the very officials that they placed their faith and loyalty in and then they have to fight their way out. Like the classic Shaw Brothers wuxia of 70s and 80s, the film moves at an efficient and quick pace, intertwining the character beats of our three heroes with bombastic action set pieces. Sleek visuals from director Lu Yang punctuate the fight work, where there are big multi-tiered fights among rain, fire, and snow as if the film didn’t think it was quite dynamic enough, and the impact of the fights actually move both plot and character arcs forward – a task that is often overlooked in modern action cinema far too often.

No chains can hold him!
Even outside of the engaging entertainment value of the film as an action flick, there is quite the heart to Brotherhood of Blades. The combined acting efforts of the three leading men, along with a rather large and yet utterly memorable and valuable secondary cast, deepens the overall effectiveness of the standard betrayal/loyalty martial arts themes. Layers of character personalities are peeled away in quick effectual dialogue (learning of the dreams, problems, and loves of these three men is almost as entertaining as the slick modern sword fighting) and by the time shit truly hits the fan in the third act the film had me hooked and emotional.

Carry on.
That is the brilliance of Brotherhood of Blades. On one side, the film contains plenty of modern visuals and a slightly askew narrative that uses non-linear leaps for emotional punch. On the other, this film could have easily starred Ti Lung, David Chiang, and Fu Sheng and been one of the biggest grossing wuxia films for the Shaw Brothers in 1978 with its classic themes and characters. Yet, the true highlight of the film is just how unbelievably smooth the blending of both of those sides are. The film is beautiful and lush in its look and design. The fights are ambitious and exciting. The story is classic and still refreshing in its character build. Brotherhood of Blades is one of the best martial arts films in the last 30 years. Chang Cheh would be proud.
Seriously though, I’m adding a couple of pre-order links below this. Buy it. It drops on February 10th from the iconic Well Go USA.

Written By Matt Reifschneider

Saturday, January 24, 2015

Knock Knock (2015)

Director: Eli Roth
Notable Cast: Keanu Reeves, Lorenza Izzo, Ana de Armas, Ignacia Allamand, Aaron Burns, Colleen Camp

One of the things that I enjoy about Eli Roth and his films is that weird ability they have to create a divide in horror fans. Half of my horror friends love him, the other half despise him. I’m not necessarily the biggest fan of his movies overall and his writing is always shaky at best, but I appreciate his dedication to his own style. This is why I was so curious about Knock Knock. For his latest venture into the horror foray, Roth ditches his gore fever for a more classic femme fatale home invasion flick. While I appreciate his leap into a new sub-genre of horror, Knock Knock is a rather mixed bag overall. One that will most certainly be divisive among the horror community.

Evan (Reeves) is a good man, a good husband, and a loving father to his two kids. When his family heads out of town to the beach, he’s stuck at home working diligently on his architectural work. During a rainy night though, two mysterious young women arrive on his doorstep. Being the good man that he is, he invites them in out of the rain and tries to help them with their problems. Unfortunately, they seem to have different ideas about what he can help them with.

There is an obvious blend of Fatal Attraction and Funny Games on display with Knock Knock that most horror fans will latch onto immediately. Conceptionally, Roth once again harkens back a few decades for inspiration for the film and in many ways he modernizes it to work in a new age of digital media, social networking, and information flow. Unfortunately, while the intriguing bends of how to create that ‘horror is isolation’ aspect doesn’t always work for the narrative and often it blooms into some massive plot holes that leaves the audience having to push aside their own sense of disbelief to continue with the film. Partnered with Eli Roth’s own ability to make things seem over-the-top, Knock Knock struggles a bit to execute what it wants exactly.

Cooking is deadly.
A lot of the issues that arise in this throw back, tense sexual thriller come from it existing in two different realms. The first realm is what Knock Knock wants to be – a tense, frustrating man-in-a-maze film. The plot remains purposefully vague in many ways, including the exact whys and whos for the femme fatale villains of the flick, as not to detract from the in the moment suspense. Roth does his best to blend his own outrageous style (and humor) into a film that doesn’t necessarily fit his strengths. It’s admirable in many ways to see how much Knock Knock pulls away from going too far with its horror and really attempts to build atmosphere. It definitely goes all the way with the sex and the sexual aspect, but that seemed par for the course if you have seen any of his previous films.

The other realm that Knock Knock exists in was just briefly alluded to – the Eli Roth film we know and expect. His patented brash and dark humor bubbles up in spades, including a final moment featuring Facebook, and the film tends to really dig down and start using the grindhouse exploitative elements to reach the places it wants to go. The tension is built with obvious broad stroke plot devices (including sex, nudity, and dialogue) and unlike the films that Knock Knock strives to be, it struggles with subtlety to get there. It certainly doesn’t help that Keanu Reeves has a pretty limited range of acting and by the finale he’s pushing his own boundaries in very unbelievable manners. In a way, this film is far more entertaining than it is ‘good’ and I would suspect that is just how the director wanted it.
Not your normal bed time story.
As silly as it may seem, Knock Knock is just kind of an awkward movie. It’s obvious that Roth wants to add more ridiculousness to the proceedings, but feels inclined to pull back and try and devote more time to tension and atmosphere – which are not necessarily his strong points as a writer or director. The humor is fairly spot on and the ridiculousness of the plot is fun in a grindhouse gimmick technique, but Knock Knock almost feels too reserved for its own good and it feels like a director who purposefully chained himself to try something new. I will say this: I was massively entertained by the film and, quite frankly, that's the biggest win this film could achieve here.

BLOODY PRAISE: During my film festival screening, a dozen people walked out of the movie. I would say twice as many as that gave it a standing ovation at the end. So yes, the film is a bit dividing in how it goes about things. 

Written By Matt Reifschneider

Friday, January 23, 2015

Zatoichi's Pilgrimage (1966)

Director: Kazuo Ikehiro
Notable Cast: Shintaro Katsu, Michiyo Okusu, Isao Yamagata, Hisashi Igawa, Masao Mishima, Kunie Tanaka

After the startling and praise worthy potency of Chess Expert and Vengeance, I almost expected the Zatoichi franchise to be hitting a second ‘golden era’ after the first four films rattled my world. Then, of course, I saw that Zatoichi’s Pilgrimage, the fourteenth film in the series, was directed by Kazuo Ikehiro. While the name might not ring a bell for most folks, he previously directed two other links in the Zatoichi chain, both of which lie towards the end of my favorites. I kept optimistic though and went into the film with lofty expectations. Only to have them semi-crushed by the rather generic film on hand here. There are a few things to enjoy and love in Zatoichi’s Pilgrimage, but after the heights reached in the twelfth and thirteenth entries it’s hard not to be pretty disappointed.

Zatoichi (Shintaro Katsu) is on a pilgrimage. While on a trip to visit 88 shrines to find forgiveness for all of the people he has killed in his travels, he just so happens to kill one more. This one was sent by a conniving landlord and horseman Tohachi (Yamagata) just to have the would-be assassin killed. Zatoichi seeks out the man’s family and finds himself, once again, a make shift hero for a village cowering in fear.

Zatoichi don't take no ship.
At this point, the Zatoichi series has not only established a formula, but it’s perfected it. So depending on the film, it’s the execution of the idea that’s wrapped around the formula that determines whether it’s good or not. After the last two films, Pilgrimage simply seems…lazy. The film starts off on the right foot, Zatoichi – once again played to the nines by Katsu – is on a ship heading for his pilgrimage when he meets a cocky thief. You can probably guess where it goes from there. The unique setting of the ship and the glorious Zatoichi moment here is played up to Ikehiro’s grindhouse style that he used to heavy effect in Chest of Gold. Unfortunately, this sort of fun moment quickly descends into mediocrity though.

A close shave.
The majority of the film is then spent sort of building the same plot and characters we have seen a few times before in this series. The lead female role is decent, but rarely as engaging as the some of the ones prior and our blind hero seems to run through the motions that is really only sold by Katsu’s continued fluidity and charm of the character. Pilgrimage is giving a fun almost spaghetti western vibe with its dusty summer village setting and the true highlight of the film comes in the form of the villain – a horse riding, arrow toting, beer belly dragging scumbag that steals damn near every scene he’s in.

While the majority of the film sort of meanders about with its generic plot, the film does pick up in the last 15 to 20 minutes for the finale. Ikehiro may utterly miss the opportunities to deepen the characters or give the plot meaning, but the man knows how to shoot an action set piece to its greatest grindhouse entertaining value. Pilgrimage really owns it at this point and plays up the arrow vs sword, hero vs villain aspect to some massively entertaining results. Even in one of the mid way sequences there is a fun moment where Zatoichi splits an arrow with a barely drawn sword that might be one of the cooler moments of the series thus far.

Yes, the bad guys are still outnumbered.
Zatoichi’s Pilgrimage might be entertaining in its opening and its finale where Ikehiro uses his talents as a grindhouse style director to full benefit, but the rest of the film is a sort of wash. It lacks a lot of the depth of storytelling and the flow of narrative that has made the best Zatoichi films the high quality films that they are. Pilgrimage is a fun movie in moments, but it really lacks the oomph to take it to the next level.

Written By Matt Reifschneider

Masked Avengers (1981)

Director: Chang Cheh
Notable Cast: Philip Kwok, Lu Feng, Chiang Sheng, Chu Ko, Chin Siu-Ho, Wang Li

The greatest part about Chang Cheh’s filmography is that the man is pretty diverse even while working within the confines of the Shaw Brothers studio. He can deliver a thoughtful and dramatic flick (The One-Armed Swordsman) or he can deliver an utterly over the top, outrageous gimmick film (The Crippled Avengers) and succeed at both. Sometimes he balances the two stylistic approaches within a single film, like for the Masked Avengers, and still finds a way to make it work. For this Venom Mob flick, he takes a super dark and serious story and injects just enough fun and outrageousness to make it fit in a surprisingly charming way.

A team of hired guards has been tasked with finding, disrupting, and destroying the vicious gang known as The Masked Avengers. When one of their own is found dead at the hands of this evil and villainous group, they find themselves in a small town with a variety of suspects they believe to be the golden trident wheeling chief. Will the various kung fu killers end up making fertilizer of our heroes before they can solve the mystery?

Jump around. Jump around.
Masked Avengers is a shockingly brutal and dark film. Chang Cheh has never been shy of violent material and he certainly has toyed with the darker elements of storytelling, but there are a few moments in the film that borderline on horror genre bending. When the viewer is first introduced to the titular evil clan (more like cult) they are celebrating the death of the trespasser from our heroic group. By celebrating, I mean they ritualistically hang him on a statue, impale him with their unique trident weapons, and then drink wine that is flavored with the blood that is pouring from his wound. Yeah. No shit. This kind of almost torture like killing is a theme throughout (spinning men hung for target practice for example) and the villains with their bright red outfits and demonic masks make for some of the best villains I have seen in a Shaw Brothers flick. Masked Avengers is brutal throughout too – a man is doused with acid, yeah – so keep that in mind going into this film.

A stab for a stab...
From there, the film does play up the usual kung fu tropes. The Venom Mob (including a few newer faces) strut their usual charming stuff in most of the bigger roles. Chiang Sheng does seem a bit miscast as the leader of the good clan and lacks the strong maturity and leadership abilities to pull it off, but the rest of the casting is spot on. Strangely enough with such a talented fight cast, Masked Avengers does pull away from the bigger fight spectacles in the first two-thirds to focus on building the characters and story. There are a few here and there, including a fun failed assassination attempt, but it really does save all of that energy for the finale…

…a finale that is fuckin’ phenomenal. Not only is all of the time spent on developing the characters and plot paid off in full, but the combination of gimmick riddled deaths and choreography is massively entertaining. It’s like watching two well-armed and highly skilled kung fu armies do battle in a trap layered abandoned temple and the results are ridiculously fun and impactful. There must be particular praise set up on the use of the trident weapon of the villains. What seemed like a gimmick for most of the film is utilized to its fullest in the final act including some ridiculously fun (and occasionally physics defying) stunts with them. The way that the various fighters throw them and bounce them off of other people to one another is complex enough that after I finished the film, I had to rewind and check out just how outrageously well timed some of it was. It’s that good.

...and this stab's for you!
Masked Avengers might not be for everyone with a rather violent approach and plot heavy first two acts, but the strength of both of these aspects pays off in the highly top notch final act. The combination of the Venom Mob and Chang Cheh fires on all cylinders here in all of the best ways. It’s not quite as serious in its narrative as one would expect with its dedication to plot and characters and it’s not quite as outrageous as the concept would seem, but Masked Avengers is a very impressive combination of the two. A true kung fu gem if I ever saw one.

Written By Matt Reifschneider

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Pirates, The (2015)

Director: Lee Seok-hoon
Notable Cast: Kim Nam-gil, Son Ye-jin, Yoo Hai-jin, Lee Kyong-young, Kim Tae-woo, Park Chul-min, Sulli Choi

“I told you to find another job. What pirate gets seasick?!”

For a long time, many foreign markets struggled to match the pure spectacle of the ‘Hollywood blockbuster.’ Whether it was a lack of budget, lack of sales, or lack of technology, these markets could never quite match the epic and big scales of these type of films. However, in the last decade or so, the Asian market has exploded as a film force to be respected and in that time they have stepped up their game to reach the ambitions of creating their own ‘blockbuster’ type films. This is where The Pirates falls. On the surface level, this high-spirited adventure comedy looks like South Korea’s answer to the Pirates of the Caribbean films. In a way it is. However, The Pirates works on a lot of levels greater than even their American counterparts could – mostly thanks to a unique and rather specific execution of the idea.

As a new country is being founded in 1388, a poor choice by the officials leaves the royal seal swallowed by a whale. To make matters worse, the panicked government decides the best course of action is to put a bounty on the whale and hires various groups to bring the royal seal back. The various thieves, militants, pirates, and agents are all ready to get their hands on the booty…but at what cost?

Sword fighting on the high seas has never been this awesome.
There is a trick to understanding and appreciating The Pirates. Upon my first viewing of the film, I had no idea how much of a comedy it really was and for the first half of that viewing I was a bit fuzzy in how I enjoyed the film in comparison to my expectations. On second viewing though, the humor is absolutely spot on. The timing is damn near perfect with some of its editing for comedy and there is a lot of – pardon the obvious pun – fish out of water elements that play out efficiently here. The group of bandits who decide to take to the seas in search of a whale leads to some hilarious results, including a sequence where they see their first shark that had me in tears on the ground. Even better is Yoo Hai-jin’s ex-pirate character and his attempts at explaining the sea to his new bandit colleagues. The man simply owns when it comes to intense comedic delivery.

However, The Pirates is not all comedy. Underneath the high energy and well fitting hijinks lies a film that really does work as a big scale adventure tale. There are a slew of different plot lines that exist separately in the first two acts and slowly come together for a massive (and dare I say rather explosive) finale. While the main portion of the film follows a brotherhood of pirates lead by the subtle acting strength of Son Ye-jin as their captain there is another main plotline that follows a group of ill-fitting bandits led by the screen eating charm of Kim Nam-gil. This allows The Pirates to have a multitude of layers. It introduces us to two separate villains, a political subplot, and injects enough action to keep us entertained throughout. And the action is awesome. For a pirate movie, one of the silliest – and perhaps most memorable – set pieces comes during a chase through a village while transporting explosives that includes a sort of giant water wheel of death. Sound ridiculous? It is. In all of the best ways.

At times, there seems to be almost too much plot and too many characters. During the first viewing, many of the secondary characters blended into one another and the film tends to run a bit long. In fact, there is moment just over half way into the film that really feels like it’s building into a finale, only to have it sort of side track itself as our two main protagonists are left for dead and chained together for a period that seems to drag just a bit. The film also suffers from being almost too ambitious. While the action is impressively filmed and the combination of martial arts, spectacle, and gun fighting is charming, it relies quite a bit on CGI that just isn’t quite up to par with Hollywood standards yet. They are minor complaints, but they are something to be aware of nonetheless.

Taking a stroll...
The Pirates, in the end, is a film that certainly strives to be a blockbuster action flick and succeeds on almost all of the levels. The story is epic in nature, the blend of action, comedy, and dramatic undertones works in spades, and the film is simply built to entertain throughout. Sure it has a few issues with its structure and its execution of CGI, but the rest of it is damn near perfect. If there were any film that I would want South Korea to franchise the hell out of, it would be The Pirates.

You heard me, Lee Seok-hoon. Give me more. I want more.

Written By Matt Reifschneider

Saturday, January 17, 2015

Invincible Shaolin (1978)

Director: Chang Cheh
Notable Cast: Philip Kwok, Lo Mang, Lu Feng, Wei Pai, Chiang Sheng, Sun Chen, Wong Lung Wei

“Ask this fruit merchant how much a brave man costs.”

After partaking in the rather disappointing The Trail of the Broken Blade, I felt it was time to go back to ‘classic’ Chang Cheh martial arts and revisit one of his fan favorites Invincible Shaolin. This was one of the first Shaw Brothers movies I watched back when I was first starting into the genre and at the request of some readers – it was high time to head back with the Venom Mob. While this flying feet and fists extravaganza has its flaws in story narrative, the resulting blend of political intrigue, dueling clans, and classic kung fu tropes makes for a massively enjoyable flick.

When a general asks the two Shaolin schools to each send their three best to be kung fu instructors for his army, he knowingly sets up a rivalry that will violently play out. When the three teachers from the North are blamed for killing three fighters from the South, their master vows revenge. He sets it up so that three new fighters will be sent to take vengeance – this time training them all to win.

Talk about hand to hand combat.
At its foundational levels, Invincible Shaolin is a fairly standard kung fu film. Motives of vengeance, extensive training sequences, and gimmick riddled fighting all make up the core of what this film is about. With a strong cast made up of the Venom Mob, who continue to impress with their charm, chemistry, and physical on-screen prowess, and under the direction of Chang Cheh, Invincible Shaolin proves to be a massively entertaining flick in this regard. The fights are delightfully fun throughout and they do take a rather emotional turn in the finale – which includes those patented Chang Cheh bursts of violence and gore, so that this film ranks up there right between the seriousness of The Five Deadly Venoms and the ridiculousness of camp included in Crippled Avengers. If anything, this flick succeeds as an entertaining romp.

Anyone that makes a Karate Kid joke gets beaten.
Outside of the basics though, Invincible Shaolin does have some strange narrative choices. After starting the film's first act with the Northern Shaolin instructors as the protagonists, it takes a turn in the second act to focus on the South Shaolin avengers as the protagonists. This shift also comes with an intriguing slide in plot as the first act establishes a sort of murder mystery for the Northern instructors with the question 'who really killed their rivals,' but the second act focuses on the training. While the training sequences are a staple of the genre and a sort of fan pleasing aspect, it does take away from the bigger plot. There are a few times that it switches back to the Northern instructors and a sort of budding romantic subplot (which is fun, but rarely as emotionally effective as it should have been), but it’s not enough to really push it forward and it seems forced. By the time the two different plots reconnect in the third act, the viewer knows the outcome because the film has lost its depth. If it wasn’t for the shared chemistry of the Venom Mob onscreen and their ridiculously effectual charm and dynamic fight work, Invincible Shaolin would have lost a lot of steam at this point. Luckily for us, they really do pull it off even if the film’s narrative and plot crumble from beneath them. 

As a kung fu fan, Invincible Shaolin certainly caters to the pleasing aspects that I have come to love and expect from the genre with its plentiful and dynamic fighting, strong characters, and gimmick riddled training sequences. It does however stumble when it comes to its plot and narrative, sacrificing what could have been a very emotionally punctuated concept and throwing it on the backburner for those classic kung fu tropes. Kung fu fans will find things to love for sure, but those of a more discerning taste might not be as fulfilled as promised by the stunning cast, director, and pledges of story.

Written By Matt Reifschneider

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Zero Theorem, The (2014)

Director: Terry Gilliam
Notable Cast: Christoph Waltz, Matt Damon, David Thewlis, Melanie Thierry, Tilda Swinton

The continued presence of Terry Gilliam as a director to push truly thoughtful and outrageous concept films into the world is something no one should take lightly. From his early days in Monty Python to his latest film The Zero Theorem, his ability to blend the quirky awkward comedy, thoughtful high level thinking, and emotional punch of the human plight has been impressive. For The Zero Theorem, Gilliam goes back to some of the same thematic and structural elements he used for the iconic Brazil to deliver one of the strongest and – believe it or not – most straight forward films of his career.

Qohen Zeth (Waltz) has a dead end job as a sort of computer ‘cruncher’ for Management. He doesn’t see much use in it and his continued patience for a phone call to give his life meaning is running short. When Management (Damon) gives him a new highly secretive task working on The Zero Theorem from home, Zeth begins to crumble under the weight of his new work.

Web surfing.
On the surface level, Gilliam delivers another film that is both silly and utterly sarcastic in its interpretation about man’s role in the bigger scheme. The outrageousness of the world presented here (where ads follow you on the wall and a party is just a bunch of drunk people dancing with their mobile devices) is in stark contrast to the withdrawn and often skittish Zeth, who is played to awkward brilliance by Christoph Waltz. The Zero Theorem takes this sort of ‘future world’ and layers it with a lot of different themes about control, networking, and one person’s plight to find meaning. It’s Gilliam’s patented overzealous silliness of color and visuals in many ways that spurs much of the comedy and thematic thoughtfulness of the writing. This review won’t necessarily try to analyze the concepts (as it is VERY open to interpretation in many ways), but know that this is not your average science fiction-esque drama comedy. It’s much too deep for that.

Yet the best part of the film might not be the colorful and high concept stage that is set up by the plot or visuals, but by the intense and rather heartbreaking/heartwarming character work that comes about for Zeth and all of those around him. While the social and political commentary is a big foundation of the science fiction and plot, the character arc delivered by Gilliam and Waltz might contain more punch. Partnered with some stellar secondary performances (Melanie Thierry takes a rather one note character with her ‘call girl’ and gives it so much more depth then it had any right to have), the entire film becomes hypnotizing. Watching a man lose control of the life he has built and learning to find control of the life he wants is much more impactful and refreshing.

I love the sex shop next to the church. Classic Gilliam.
The Zero Theorem is certainly not a film for everyone. The slow pacing of the film, particularly in the third act, will try the patience of those who don’t buy into the plot or characters and the rather subtle and open interpretation of what the film is saying will definitely rub a more mainstream audience the wrong way. However, for cinephiles and those looking for film with much more depth and thoughtful character building than 98% of the films released in the last five years will want to go out and immediately purchase The Zero Theorem when it drops.

Written By Matt Reifschneider

Monday, January 12, 2015

Trail of the Broken Blade, The (1967)

Director: Chang Cheh
Notable Cast: Jimmy Wang Yu, Kiu Chong, Chin Ping

As a Shaw Brothers fan and even more particularly a Chang Cheh fan, I was stoked when The Trail of the Broken Blade was finally getting its official US release. One of the first big films for Chang Cheh at the iconic studio, it's a sort of kick start that lead him to his brilliant film The One-Armed Swordsman. Unfortunately, The Trail of the Broken Blade is not quite the epic wuxia film I was expecting. In fact, it’s quite the awkward blend of different influences and genres that ultimately lends to a less than thrilling experience.

For Li Yueh (Jimmy Wang Yu), avenging the death of his father by killing a well respected officer has lead him to a life on the run and keeping him from his childhood love Liu Xian (Chin Ping). Liu Xian refuses to let go and she sends another dashing swordsman Jun-zhao (Kiu Chong) to find him and bring him home. Not knowing, the two become sworn brothers and a group of assassins from Flying Fish Island are out to make their lives hell.

The early years of the Shaw Studio saw them unsure of how to proceed with their brand of martial arts films. So a lot of the issues that arise with The Trail of the Broken Blade are not necessarily from the actors involved or even from Chang Cheh in particular. The third act certainly seems to find its footing and feels like the Chang Cheh film I wanted from the first minute, but the first two-thirds stumble through some…different elements.

The biggest piece that makes The Trail of the Broken Blade a rather awkward film is the strange blend of classic opera style and the low-key sensibilities of the Japanese samurai film. On one end of the spectrum, this film is ridiculously over the top at times. The bright costumes, the super melodramatic music, the make-up. The eye liner on Jimmy Wang Yu rivals that of Egyptian hieroglyphics at times. It also throws in a few songs for shits and giggles, not performed by the cast mind you, but as a sort of narrative for some forced and random montages that pop up here and there. This is, of course, blended with a sort of stolen structure from the popular Japanese samurai films as a man must darkly wallow in hiding and falls prey to a slew of assassins that are hunting him down. The swordplay and action is sparse in the first two acts as it focuses on building a plot that’s far too complex (and dare I say boring) for its own good. It’s not about the complex battles or choreography that kung fu films would be known for, but instead focuses on the intensity of those moments instead. What makes it so awkward is that the combination of big cheese presentation and complex subtle narratives don’t work together.

"Sorry, I didn't recognizer you without your make-up on."
Luckily, if there is a saving grace for this film, the third act finally gathers some steam. Chang Cheh, while still showcasing a bit of amateur issues, seems to find his style and voice here – and one that he would embrace fully just a few films down the road. It’s the third act that feels like a true Shaw Brothers film with its cheesy villains, epic weapon battles, and almost fantasy like elements as our heroes travel to Flying Fish Island to confront the Black Net Devil and his followers. Jimmy Wang Yu does his best to convert to the killer that the first two-thirds desperately wanted him not to be, but it’s the sort of weird twist to tongue-in cheek feelings that works here. Not to mention we finally get to see some of his rather fun violent moments like a man being pierced three ways by metal spikes in a trap or a massive surge of blood that pours from the hair line of a slain man.

"Are you here for the Flying Fish Island henchmen genocide? Let me oblige."
All in all, while The Trail of the Broken Blade is an interesting look into the unsure style and feeling of early Shaw films, the resulting film is more for established fans and not for those just dabbling into the genre/studio. It’s just an awkward film that rarely gets moving due to poor cohesion and genres that don’t fit together.

Written By Matt Reifschneider