Sunday, May 31, 2015

Retaliation (1968)

Director: Yasuharu Hasebe
Notable Cast: Akira Kobayashi, Jo Shishido, Hideaki Nitani, Tamio Kawaji, Meiko Kaji

Arrow Video Features:
* Limited Edition Blu-ray (3000 copies only)
* Restored High Definition Blu-ray (1080p) and Standard Definition DVD presentation, on Blu-ray for the first time in the world!
* Original uncompressed mono PCM audio
* Newly translated English subtitles
* Interview with renowned critic and historian Tony Rayns
* Original theatrical trailer
* Gallery featuring rare promotional images
* Reversible sleeve featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Ian MacEwan
* Booklet featuring new writing on the film by Japanese cinema expert Jasper Sharp, newly illustrated by Ian MacEwan and featuring original archive stills

It’s movies like Retaliation that make me sad about the state of appreciation for the yakuza genre of the past. I’m not saying that Retaliation is a poor film that’s poorly appreciated. In fact, I’m saying quite the opposite. It’s powerful. What I am saying is that there are so many great Japanese gangster films that exist that will probably never see the light of day in many western countries. Thanks to Arrow Video though, we get at least one of the many overlooked classics. Hasebe’s Retaliation is an impactful, cut-throat, and efficient tale about both the dark and bright sides of life as a moral yakuza gangster and this restored and packed limited release of the film does it as much justice as the film does for the underground brilliance of the genre.

Jiro (Kobayashi) is fresh out of the slammer. Eight years away from his life as a yakuza has allowed him some introspection, but the collapse of his adopted family by a much larger yakuza gang seems to have left him with little choice for his future. He’s tasked with his new bosses to take a handful of men and manipulate two smaller clans against one another so that they can move in and purchase some land for a massive corporate deal. Things might get bloody, but how far can he sacrifice his own morals before he has to retaliate?

The darkness of its subject leaks into a lot of aspects of this movie.
Almost ten years before John Woo would popularize the ‘heroic bloodshed’ concept of gangster movies in A Better Tomorrow, Hasebe uses almost the exact same formula for Retaliation to deliver a heartfelt film full of colorful characters, loyalty, and brotherhood. While his previous film Massacre Gun utilized an atmospheric and noir-inspired touch, Retaliation makes no such attempts or spins on its story about men trapped in a vicious cycle of death and power…and their eventual rebellion against it. Retaliation is fairly cut and dry, taking its plot heavy devices and injecting the deep character reactions and artistic touches into a somewhat formulaic approach. There are twists and turns in the plot (manipulation is key to much of the tension and character beats of the film), but the film never aims to ‘surprise’ the audience with them. Instead, it takes each corner as a point to ‘surprise’ the characters and it makes each moment much more impactful. It’s decently predictable about what characters might perish or who might betray who, but the audience is still undeniably hooked in how Jiro or his team might respond to each challenge. This is impressive execution through and through to pull it off.

Since the script itself tends to be fairly straightforward in its delivery, it’s up to Hasebe and his own team to make Retaliation as impactful as it is. While the cult director would eventually see more success in films of more extreme nature later in his career, in this film it’s all about the small aspects of his visuals and sound. Fight sequences with creative lighting (a chase sequence through a house with a flashlight highlighting the prey, for example) or a breathless death duel that’s punctuated in slow motion with the ringing of dripping water makes many of these predictable twists in the plot so damn effective. This, of course, is partnered with some phenomenal performances that resonate with these artistic flourishes. Our anti-heroic trio of Akira, Kobayashi, Hideaki Nitani, and Jo Shishido carry even the most limited of screen time, but even most of the extensive secondary cast impress. If anything, I desperately wanted the film to have 30 or 40 minutes more to deepen the character chemistry for much of Jiro’s team. Not that it stops Jo Shishido and Akira Kobayashi from having one of the most fascinating on screen bromances I have ever seen on film, but it’s one of the few setbacks of the film as it feels like it rushes many of the enthralling relationships to keep the plot moving.

Jo Shishido needed way more screen time...outside of eating.
Needless to say, if you are a fan of gangster films or just insanely well executed action thrillers, then you need to immediately purchase the limited print of this Retaliation release. The film could have used a bit more time to enhance some of the more specific secondary characters, but it does some very impressive things with its formulaic plot. It’s populated with captivating performances, artistic flourishes, and some brutally effective violence that resonates long after the film has ended. To bring it back full circle, it’s impressive films like Retaliation that make me wonder just what other classic yakuza films are floating out there that most western audiences will never see…and never appreciate for their underground brilliance. Let’s just hope that Arrow Video digs up more of these undiscovered gems.

Written By Matt Reifschneider

If you're one that wants to enjoy Retaliation, feel free to order your limited copy at the link below.

Friday, May 29, 2015

Der Samurai (2015)

Director: Till Kleinert
Notable Cast: Michel Diercks, Pit Bukowski, Uwe Preuss, Kaja Blachnik, Ulrike Hanke-Haensch, Christopher Kane, Ulrike Bliefert

It might only be half way through the year, but we may already have our “WTF Movie of the Year” award winner. Don’t let that kind of award title frighten you though, because in the case of Der Samurai, it’s actually something of a compliment. Despite one of the most baffling plots you are likely to indulge in this year, this German horror thriller is both remarkably simple and ridiculously complex at the same time. It fills its proficient 79 minute run time with enough enigmatic imagery and atmospheric creepiness that any horror fan is going to want to experience what Der Samurai has to offer.

Jakob (Diercks) is kind of a tight ass. As only one of two police officers in a small German village, he tries very hard to make his youth and lonesome life one that doesn’t stop him from being good at what he does. When a mysterious package arrives at his door one night and a mysterious caller tells him to bring it to an abandoned house on the edge of town, his curiosity gets the better of him and he goes to deliver the package. What he finds that night will lead him on the trail of a rampaging lunatic.

It's gonna be one of those nights.
There are a lot of horror films that attempt to blur the lines between the reality of the film and a sort of fantasy-like edge and sometimes they succeed (last year's The Canal, for example) but often it ends up being a bit forced. For Der Samurai, the almost subtle spiral into stranger and stranger circumstances are marked with realistic elements and it makes the blurring even more potent. Director Till Kleinert is so proficient at creating flow and atmosphere in this movie that it becomes damn near impossible to tell if anything is supposed to be a part of Jakob’s deteriorating psyche or a real obstacle he most overcome. Whether it’s the wolf in the woods that kicks off the film, the semi-punk-like group of young members that oppose Jakob, or the continued almost boogeyman-like presence of our villainous cross-dressing “samurai,” the film does an admirable job at taking a very simple premise and making it dream-like without succumbing to the pretentiousness of being ‘artsy.’

To pull this off, Der Samurai requires a lot from its execution. While the director most certainly has the biggest role in pulling off such a ridiculous concept, the rest of the film has to be just as good to make sure nothing feels out of place. Michel Diercks comes off as remarkably honest and well-intentioned as Jakob; enough so that when he starts to lose his shit by the third act the audience sincerely feels for emotional progress. This, of course, is completely countered by the enigmatic and ‘hold-your-breath-cause-who-knows-what-the-fuck-he-will-do’ performance by Bukowski as the ‘samurai’ himself. Most of the secondary cast is limited to smaller bits of screen time so it’s left to these two to truly carry the film and they handily accomplish this act. These performances and the atmospheric feel of the film is punctuated with some strangely effective (very) dark humor too—enough to just break the tension a little bit so that the film isn’t utterly suffocating at times. So certainly keep that in mind.

Well...that happened.
With strange erotic undertones, a handful of impressive gore pieces (I’ve never seen a decapitation with fireworks before, so that’s a plus), and enough atmospheric tension and intrigue to smother most horror newbies, Der Samurai is the kind of film that seems simple on the surface level, but has enough emotion and pressure seething underneath that it haunts the viewer for weeks after it’s done. With a synopsis that had me scratching my head, my expectations were a bit scattered. Der Samurai annihilated those expectations with its expert executions and thoughtful concept. It’s a strange film, but it is also quite fulfilling as an artful horror experience.

Written By Matt Reifschneider

 If you so want to experience the Der Samurai film, feel free to click the link below.

Monday, May 25, 2015

Marine 4: Moving Target, The (2015)

Director: William Kaufman
Notable Cast: Mike “The Miz” Mizanin, Melissa Roxburgh, Josh Blacker, Matthew MacCaull, Summer Rae, Paul McGillion, Roark Critchlow

"Come on. Call my bluff, bitch. Meanwhile, I'm gonna have breakfast."

If you would have told me that 2006’s The Marine, an obvious attempt by WWE films to kick start the film career of John Cena, would have three sequels under its moniker, I would have slapped you. One sequel perhaps, maybe even two follow ups if it was lucky, but three? Get the fuck out, you crazy son of a bitch. Yet here I am, sitting down to review The Marine 4: Moving Target. Not only is it the third sequel to an original that wasn’t worthy of a franchise, but it’s one, if not the, best of the series. Well, you crazy son of a bitch, feel free to slap me instead because I’m starting to think I’m the one that needs to get the fuck out.

Jake Carter (Mike “The Miz” Mizanin) has finally found a job after returning from the military and fighting off some baddies in The Marine 3. It’s his first day as an armed bodyguard for a private military group and his first assignment is to work with a team that’s bringing in a young woman (Melissa Roxburgh) who is blowing the whistle on some big name military contractor. Like most films of this ilk, it’s going to be the first day from hell when a vicious group of mercenaries are sent to kill her.

Shooting backwards while running is tough...
For The Marine 4, we’re not going to be getting into discussions about the high art of character work or the twisty plot that keeps you guessing. What we are going to be discussing is good old fashioned low budget action clichés and the fun that is to be had with them. After kicking off with some nostalgic early 00s cheese in some opening credits of fuzzy pictures, shots from The Marine 3, and an industrial rock track with a crooning chorus, The Marine 4 wastes no time getting us where we need to go. If one thing can be said about this movie in definite terms, it’s efficient. Instead of continuing the theme of this franchise by having the Die Hard formula of “right guy in the wrong place at the wrong time” that the previous entries used, The Marine 4 substitutes it for a sort of Rambo inspired “right guy in the wrong place at the wrong time while killing people in the forest.” The subtitle Moving Target is aptly used here as the film maneuvers along as a chase film instead of having the hero taking on baddies who have holed up in some sort of building/fortress/boat/dock/whatever. This allows the movie to use that efficient narrative to its favor and keep things moving at a brisk pace. Whether it’s a police station shootout, a car ambush shootout, a safe house shootout, or a forest shootout, the film at least keeps the setting moving. Even if it’s mostly shootouts.

Now this is where The Marine 4 truly gets interesting. Similar to what The Marine 2 did, it takes its formulaic approach, understands that it’s formulaic, and executes it to the highest capacity that a film like this could be within said formula. At times the film even injects a bit of humor in how cliché it can be. Our hero and the leading lady have a pissing contest about reading each other’s backstory that serves as a rather fun way to get some character work and exposition into the film while indicating to the audience – yeah, we know its cliché but have fun with it. We’re not talking about great characters here, in fact the main girl can be horrendously annoying as the “outsider who doesn’t give a shit,” but it works for what it is and the film runs with it. If only they had really punctuated Blacker as the villain Vogel a bit better, then it would have even gone further.

As for the action, director William Kaufman tends to be a bit too modern in his editing and scene transitions (oh, those dreaded quick zoom and blurry camera moves get very agitating by the end) but he doesn’t use it to the extent that it becomes an unwatchable mess. In fact, most of the shootouts are remarkably fun and well-paced so that they don’t seem repetitive and the final hand to hand fight of the film is effectively planned out – even if he dispatches one of the more interesting henchwomen Dawes (played by a WWE Diva I guess and worthy of the cover art) far too quickly. It’s not perfect, but it’s better than what many theatrically released action films (I’m looking at you Taken 3) seem to be capable of.

...almost as tough as smiling.
While The Marine 4 is not a film that’s going to earn accolades for any aspect of its execution, it is a remarkably effective and fun film for action fans looking to burn a couple hours. Similar to what happened with The Marine 2, this entry comes off as a rather shockingly well intentioned film to a series that is not deserving of even this kind of quality. If the rest of this franchise continues to entertain and present fun action films like this, I have no problems with purchasing and watching parts 5, 6, 7, and 8.

Written By Matt Reifschneider