Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Toolbox Murders 2 (2013/15)


Aka "TBK: Toolbox Murders 2", "Coffin Baby", "TBK: The Toolbox Murders"

Tobe Hooper’s 2003 re-imaging of the 1973 grindhouse classic “The Toolbox Murders” was a minor underground success that momentarily put Hooper back on track as a horror director to keep an eye out for (though he would later derail his career again as expected). Though I enjoyed it, “Toolbox Murders” was a flawed slasher flick that despite its rushed, open ending really didn’t beckon for, or deserve, a sequel. It served its purpose as an enjoyable hour and half for slasher fans but this genre is littered with sequels and we all knew one was not far behind. What we didn’t know was the production hell and behind-the-camera drama that would ensue that would delay the official release of this follow-up for more than a decade. Now after a few title changes and the director and producers putting their differences aside, Shout! Factory unleashes this cursed sequel to the masses and it comes to no surprise it was not worth the wait.
The killer from the original (now credited as TBK in the credits instead of Coffin Baby) survives his fall, decides to kidnap the sister of the survivor of the original (how the hell did he know where she lived?), takes her back to his lair and tortures her for a majority of the films running time with annoying “time passing” title cards that popup every five minutes.
Fans will notice right away that barely any cast or crew names from Hooper’s version return. Director Dean Jones was the special make-up effects artist on the previous film and the man behind the make-up returns as our grisly faced killer. Other than that everything else is different, even the damn tone of the film. For the past 10 years there has been an emergence of films that focus on pain, gore and torture that began with a little film called “Saw”. Don’t get me wrong as I do like many of the films in this relatively new horror film movement but it has produced many third rate knock-offs which is what “Toolbox Murders 2” essentially is. This is the result if mockbuster production company The Asylum decided to make their own “Saw” film – it’s that bad.
With any of these torture films, the film is only strong as your players and if the actors can’t realistically portray their pain and agony then the film will fail, which “Toolbox Murders 2” ultimately does as our lead actress Chauntal Lewis can’t convincingly convey her emotional and physical abuse. Here character is also all over the map, from strong willed to a whimpering willow. We are even graced with legendary actor Bruce Dern giving a cameo but he is thoroughly wasted in his supernatural twist of a subplot.
What we also have here is another “franchise” where the filmmakers fall in love with their villain. Unlike Freddy, Jason, hell even Jigsaw of the “Saw” franchise, Coffin Baby (err.. I mean TBK) just isn’t interesting enough to carry a film. The first film tried to create an aura of mystery around him with some occult surrounds in the building he terrorized but all that is thrown out the window for blood, pain and torture and all the supernatural elements feel shoehorned in. With no plot, an uninteresting villain, ham-fisted acting and directing that barely ekes above amateurish we are left with a hollow, uninteresting waste of a film. Quite frankly I was bored throughout.
Far more interesting than the film is the troubled backstory. It seems soon after completion the director went and shot additional footage, cutting all ties to Hooper’s film and released it under the title Coffin Baby (Image Entertainment even released it on DVD in 2013 under this title but good luck finding it now). Legal battles ensued until the director and producers put their differences aside and the new footage was scrapped and the version Shout! Factory released on DVD and Blu-ray is the original vision as devised in the script. I have not seen the “Coffin Baby” cut of the film but if this is considered the “definitive cut” it’s hard to believe how unbelievably bad that version has to be but fans on facebook do ensure me that cut is better... perhaps I will find out for myself one day.
Written By Eric Reifschneider

Sunday, September 27, 2015

Green Inferno, The (2015)

Director: Eli Roth
Notable Cast: Lorenza Izzo, Ariel Levy, Aaron Burns, Kirby Bliss Banton, Magda Apanowicz, Ignacia Allamand, Daryl Sabara, Sky Ferreira
Love him or hate him (or both), but Eli Roth has a knack for causing controversy. His Hostel films certainly garnered their fair share of both love and hate from fans and critics, but that didn’t stop them from being talked about. A key factor that kept them (and still keeps them) as conversation topics long after their actual impact has faded. This is also going to be the legacy of his latest horror film, the cannibal survival flick The Green Inferno, as the film has earned its fair share of controversy and clever marketing schemes to keep it relevant. After an extensive delay in release, the film finally hit theaters and the results are much different than expected – for both better and worse.

Justine (Izzo) is a college freshmen looking to leave an impact on the world around her. She becomes captivated with a local activist Alejandro (Levy) and joins his cause for fighting off some evil land developers in the Amazon and ends up with a select group actually heading down to stream a protest live online. While things are not always what they seem, a terrible turn of events finds the activists within the hands of one of the tribes they were trying to protect…and next in line to be their dinner.

Gore party!
Prior to its release, the marketing team was really pushing how disturbing and violent The Green Inferno is. People faint at showings, clips and trailers are banned from social media, etc. Partnered with Eli Roth’s own claim that The Green Inferno was meant to be a throwback film to the cannibal exploitation films of the 70s, it’s hard not to get one’s expectations up. However, for horror fans even remotely versed in the likes of the genre with classics like Cannibal Holocaust, Cannibal Ferox, and their ilk, then you will probably come out disappointed. The Green Inferno is not nearly as controversial, disturbing, or gross as most of those films. For a modern mainstream audience the film is certain to get some reactions, but for those looking for a true throwback film then The Green Inferno is not it. It is most certainly an inspired love letter to the genre, but it’s done with a very obvious Roth spin on the material and it’s not going to be what some are expecting.

With that being said, I will fully admit that I had a fucking blast watching The Green Inferno. Eli Roth injects a remarkable amount of humor into the film which had me laughing through a majority of the run time (it also helps that he has a strange knack for making disturbing sequences so over the top that it’s hard not to laugh) and the film really piles on some of the ridiculous gore pieces in the latter half. For those looking for plenty of gore, the film certainly has it. Thanks to some top notch effects, a lot of the horror and disturbing elements are provided in full gory glory. To its benefit, The Green Inferno keeps a lot of the kills more diverse than just ‘being eaten’ so that allows things to be more interesting – even if some of them are obviously set up by elements in the first half and oddly forced into the plot. A death by killer ants, for example, doesn’t work nearly as well as one would hope in a film like this.

One of the bigger issues that arises in The Green Inferno though is it’s often over the top writing. The characters of the film, outside of our leading lady Lorenza Izzo, are painted in rather broad stroke ways and many of them seem to be more akin to caricatures than characters – a move that tends to undermine the potential horror later on. If anything, the way the characters are portrayed really only works once for a truly horrifying death sequence, the first one of their entrapment, which is an elongated one that had the audience cringing. The villainous head of the activist group, as an example, is such an asshole that at times it comes off as comical. The dialogue doesn’t tend to be any better. At this point though, this style of detail-less characters and extreme circumstances seems to be Eli Roth’s elements of writing. If it was anything else, then I would have been surprised. It doesn’t make for a great film, but it definitely makes for an entertaining one in the end.

I love how you decorated your home.
If you’re expecting The Green Inferno to be a pure throwback, then you probably won’t love the film. If you are skeptical of Eli Roth’s style of dark humor and intense gore, then it won’t change your mind. If you go into the film knowing that it is very much an Eli Roth film and one that piles on some strange moments with tons of gore then it’s hard not to be utterly entertained by its outrageousness. It’s hardly as great as some of the marketing made it out to be, but it’s still a blast to watch with the proper expectations. It still comes with a big bloody recommendation.

Written By Matt Reifschneider

Friday, September 25, 2015

Better Tomorrow, A (1986)

Director: John Woo
Notable Cast: Ti Lung, Chow Yun Fat, Leslie Cheung, Waise Lee, Emily Chu, Kenneth Tsang, Tien Feng, cameos by John Woo and Tsui Hark.

Looking back, ­­A Better Tomorrow was one of the key films that drove a young teenage version of myself towards cult cinema. It had some major impacts in my life, both as a driver of the kind of films I would come to prefer and as a staple of comparison for films to come. To this day, it still has a profound effect on me. I tear up in the final act. I buy potted plants and scatter them throughout my house in case I have to hide something in them. I even slam my leg on the table at bars, toast it, and pour my drink all over my pant leg. Sure, that last one might not be true, but I think about often when I am out socially. It does not deter from the fact that A Better Tomorrow was a game changer. Not only for my fifteen year old self, but as a film too. It took John Woo and Tsui Hark’s careers to the next level and it rocketed Chow Yun Fat onto a path of international stardom. It essentially made the term ‘heroic bloodshed’ its own genre. While some of the style might come off as cliché or even cheesy to audiences now, the film works perfectly and remains a forerunner to what modern action cinema is today.

Ho (Ti Lung) and his partner Mark (Chow Yun Fat) have been one of the leaders in running a black market scheme out of Hong Kong for quite some time. They are training a new recruit Shing (Waise Lee) when a deal in Taiwan goes horribly awry. This leaves Ho in prison for five years and when he gets out, he wants to take his life straight. His police officer brother (Leslie Cheung) doesn’t believe him, his partner Mark doesn’t understand, and a new crime boss seems to want him dead. There is still a lot of work to do to rectify his wrongs.

A Better Tomorrow is the kind of action film where the action, no matter how good, takes a back seat to the character work on display here. While Chow Yun Fat gets a lot of credit for this movie, more on that in a minute, and there is essentially three lead roles, the heart and soul of this movie rests with Ti Lung’s Ho. Shaking off some of the more stand up heroics of his time with the Shaw Brothers studio, he plays the perfect weathered and well-intentioned gangster here and it’s his emotional journey that lifts this film up. He is surrounded by some serious talent in the secondary cast and it’s easy to see why Chow Yun Fat comes off as the face of this film when he steals so many sequences. His hot headed and often desperate cool portrayal is the perfect balance to Ti Lung and Chow Yun Fat destroys what could have been a throw away “best friend” role. The chemistry on screen between the three leads is impeccable and it truly is the biggest reason to see A Better Tomorrow.

With that being said, the rest of the film is also top notch quality. John Woo takes his now patented “gun fu” style to dramatic heights here with some massive melodramatic scores and an ability to capture movement and depth like few of his Hong Kong action peers. As an action film, A Better Tomorrow is potent. It never shies away from the violence, a sequence where Chow Yun Fat pulls a one man assassination on a dinner party almost entirely in slow motion stands out, and it uses its character work and dramatic tension as a build to explosive bursts - bursts of gun fire, explosions, and horrific hand to hand fights that punctuate turning points in the plot. The style might be called ‘heroic bloodshed,’ but rarely does any of the action pieces feel heroic as much as a needed break from the building atmosphere. John Woo shoots them in such a way that they feel artful and dance like (earning his movies the loving term ‘bullet ballets’) and it’s this ability to balance the plot and character progressions in action sequences that makes A Better Tomorrow the game changer it remains.

Say what you want about the intense bro-mance you will experience in A Better Tomorrow or its almost overpowering emotional beats that shine brighter than the already magnificent action set pieces, but this film is a classic – pure and simple. It set up the international careers for almost all of its principal cast and crew (outside of Ti Lung, who had already had a decade of being a Hong Kong A-lister at this point) and it set the ground work principals for what modern action films should be to this day. A Better Tomorrow might not be what many people expect when it comes to classic action, but it’s so much more.

Written By Matt Reifschneider

Sunday, September 20, 2015

Zatoichi Meets the One-Armed Swordsman (1971)

Director: Kimiyoshi Yasuda
Notable Cast: Shintaro Katsu, Jimmy Wang Yu, Cheung Yik, Wang Ling, Hama Yuko, Kagawa Masato

As the end of the Zatoichi franchise comes near, it’s obvious that the filmmakers and producers were running out of ideas to make the films unique. I mean, this is the 22nd film in the series after all. It’s understandable. So they obviously turned to gimmicks and tricks to keep things fresh. The results have been something of a roller coaster ride of quality for the films and the previous entry, Zatoichi Goes to the Fire Festival, was a big eclectic and entertaining mess. However, the series seemed intent on bringing in the new fresh elements and for this next entry our blind heroic swordsman is destined to meet blades with one of China’s legendary martial artists– Wang Kang, the one armed swordsman played by the iconic Jimmy Wang Yu. While it’s not quite as soul devouring as the last time Zatoichi met with another franchise character in Zatoichi Meets Yojimbo, Zatoichi Meets the One-Armed Swordsman is still a massively entertaining and fast paced flick worthy of this high end franchise.

Wang Kang (Jimmy Wang Yu) is in Japan to visit an old friend who has returned to study at a temple. When he befriends another Chinese couple with a young son, he forges a quick bond. Unfortunately, a mistake by the young boy leaves his parents dead and Wang Kang on the run from the local authorities. When Zatoichi (Shintaro Katsu) gets involved in a desperate attempt to help, things only turn for the worse and the two legendary swordsmen will find themselves destined to drawn blades on one another by the end of this adventure.

What I enjoyed best about Zatoichi Meets the One-Armed Swordsman is that it is a return to form for the series by having Zatoichi be (more or less) a victim of circumstance again. He essentially has no part in the events that kick off this adventure and continually throughout the film there is a theme of assumption and miscommunication that only exasperates the growing tension and violence around the two heroes. It’s a strong and emotionally effective theme that only gathers momentum as the film continues and it consumes a plethora of characters as it snowballs. The viewer begins to feel somewhat bad for both of the heroes as they continually find themselves swimming against the current to ‘do the right thing’ and it makes the film a riveting and invested watch for its audience. It also allows the film to navigate a narrative that seems straight forward on the surface, but is remarkably dense and subtle in its execution. Whether it’s the strong slew of secondary characters or the moments where we see a new problem gestating for our heroes, the film knocks it out of the park as it unfolds – slowly – but very meticulously.

Of course, the film is easily made better by the performances of both Shintaro Katsu and Jimmy Wang Yu. Both gentleman have carried the films of their franchises with their screen presence and swift charming portrayals. It’s fairly unfortunate that, as a Zatoichi film, Wang Kang’s character gets a slightly less dynamic character arc and the film doesn’t nearly capture what made him so fascinating in his own films. They throw in a few things here in there to showcase the wuxia style of his “mythos” by his ability to leap into tall trees and his staunch respect and intensity towards retaining honor, but it comes off as too little to really build the interesting combination that having a wuxia hero in a chanbara film could have crafted. It leads to some fun and clever fight sequences (although I would be lying if I said that I was somewhat disappointed by the short length of the final duel as it feels more like a Japanese action sequence rather than a Hong Kong one) and the humor works spot on, but there could have been even more fun then what the film uses.

All in all, Zatoichi Meets the One Armed Swordsman is still a fun and well executed flick. It doesn’t quite grasp the great wuxia elements that Wang Kang’s character could have brought to the table, but it wholly works as a Zatoichi flick. The performances are spot on and the visuals are strong enough to sell a lot of the plot heavy twists and turns that the film takes. It’s certainly not a perfect film, but this is one that has a lot of replay ability as I head towards the finish line of this franchise. Fans will love this one, even if it could have been slightly better.

Written By Matt Reifschneider