Friday, December 30, 2016

The Handmaiden (2016)

Director: Park Chan-wook
Notable Cast: Kim Min-hee, Kim Tae-ri, Ha Jeong-woo, Cho Jin-woong, Moon So-ri

Clearing this up front, Park Chan-wook is my favorite working director. That said, there are certain things in his films, without going into a long tangent before even starting this, that I dislike. So, this isn't a fanboy review, and I will try to refrain from geeking out in a biased manner. I do love his works, and he has inspired me greatly, so naturally, that will likely shine in this review. Onward to The Handmaiden, Park's newest, and one of his best.

Set in Japan, The Handmaiden (Ahgassi) weaves an intricate and twisted tale of love that blossoms from an unexpected place, between two women of two opposing classes of society, during the 1930s. Korean man, Count Fujiwara (Ha Jeong-woo), living the facade of an upper class Japanese, hires pickpocket Sook-hee (Kim Tae-ri), to infiltrate a rich family to steal an inheritance, that Lady Hideko (Kim Min-hee) is having bestowed upon her, living the life of her own personal Handmaiden.

Thursday, December 29, 2016

Unchain (2000)

Director: Toshiaki Toyoda

Cast: Kaji 'Unchain' Toshiro, Nagaishi, Koji Chihara (narration)

Documentaries on boxing, and even fictional accounts of the sport told on film are something I've always been intrigued by, so it comes with no surprise, when Third Window Films announced they would be including Unchain in their box set for Toyoda, I became quickly excited. Going into Unchain, other than knowing the sport on which its real life characters were shaped by, I knew nothing upon viewing, which is nice.

There isn't a ton to the story to be honest, though it focuses on multiple people. Unchain Kaji, is a young, blistering spirit with the heart of a boxer. He isn't very great, albeit he is greatly determined. After being beaten on numerous occasion (every time, aside from a couple of draws I believe), Unchain never won a match, and to worsen things, his eyes suffered from nerve paralysis cause by the sport he loved. 3 other boxers, all linked to Kaji, have their stories told, and how they connect with him and they all went through together, how boxing (and variations: kick boxing, shoot boxing) made them who they were.

Unchain Kaji
For at least half of the film, I must admit, I didn't care for these characters too much, and maybe not very much walking away after it was all said and done, but I will not deny how fascinating and intriguing these beings were. They are all sort of losers in their own ways, but the testosterone driven lives led them all down very different paths. Kaji seems like a sweet guy, but his fists caused him more trouble and heartache than most would ever want to go through, yet he continues to be passionate for his art. I may not (definitely not) agree with his life choices, but his determination, is very admirable and worth applauding.

There admittedly isn't a ton to say on this one, but those interested in boxing will find something to hold on to. It is very engaging and you are getting to see these bizarre people being captured in a close and very real manner. Toyoda captured the essence of these boxers and their lives, and he nails it quite well. There isn't really much of an arc for any of them, save for Kaji, and he is sort of the same guy at the end that he was at the beginning, which may be the point, but I digress.

Boxing at its most personal.
I do like some of the stylized shots and the way some of the flash editing and sound designs heighten the imagery and narration being thrown towards you at breakneck speed. It's very stylish, but seems to reflect the inner (and outer) nature of these loud, and proud fighters. The slow-motion present in Pornostar, which technically was shot after this, is scattered about here and used to similar effect, and works every time. Entire boxing matches are presented here, in a plethora of angles, from ringside wide, and most effectively a camera (handheld) which I am assuming Toyoda was holding from right beside the ring. It's low, and tracks the boxers effectively, providing quite a bit of depth to the psychological state they are in, and unlike most boxing films, most of these matches don't end very triumphantly.

In the end, I quite enjoyed Unchain and it's real, no b.s approach. It's simply about some boxers and their lives, in which intertwine together quite well. It's peppered with just the right amount of style, and spirit. I wasn't standing up and cheering, but I vicariously watched like a hawk from the ringside. Odd characters and plenty of boxing, Unchain may lack the oomph of other works in the genre, but it most certainly holds its own in the ring.

Written by Josh Parmer

Monday, December 26, 2016

Sleeping Fist (1979)

Director: Teddy Yip
Notable Cast: Bryan “Beardy” Leung, Yuen Siu-tien, Wong Yat-lung, Eddy Ko, Suen Lam, Au-yeung Ling-lung, Ma Chin-ku

The success of Yuen Woo Ping’s collaborations with Jackie Chan in the last 70s set off a wave of changes in the martial arts cinema world at the time. Not only did it solidify both the actor and the director/choreographer as recognizable names worldwide, but it also shifted the focus that studios and other film makers would use for a rather sizable period of time. Of course, it was the film Drunken Master that really set the stage for most of this and with any kind of surprise success it’s not unrealistic to see a slew of knock offs and replications to arise. This is where Sleeping Fist exists as a film. Yet, despite it’s obvious Drunken Master knock off sequences – going as far as to include Yuen Siu-tien as the quirky old kung fu master – the film is shockingly fun and solid. It’s not nearly as fluid in its story and/or characters as something like Drunken Master, but it certainly has its own charms and uses those to craft a decently fun and humorous kung fu flick…one that is certainly overlooked far too much by the martial arts cinema community.

Sunday, December 25, 2016

Monkey King 2, The (2016)

Director: Soi Cheang

Notable Cast: Aaron Kwok, Gong Li, William Feng, Xiaoshenyang, Him Law, Fei Xiang, Kelly Chen, Lu Weu, Xi’er Qi, Miya Muqi

Having recently watched The Monkey King when it finally arrived on Netflix Streaming in the US, the announcement that Well Go USA was going to be releasing the second film, the aptly titled The Monkey King 2, in the US on VOD, DVD and Blu Ray came as something of a shock. While the first and second film in this fantasy action franchise did some serious cash in the Chinese box office in 2014 and 2016 respectively, the first film was wholly centered on very non-western concepts with story arcs and beyond that was a massive CGI fueled, family friendly train wreck. Was the second film going to improve on the quality and, if so, would a western audience in the US really be willing to dive into the culture of this tale? The second part of the question remains to be seen (The Monkey King 2 is currently available on VOD, but doesn’t hit physical media until early January), but the quality of the film and the approach would certainly indicate movement in the right direction. Does it match the quirky and artistic merits of many of the other cinematic spins on the Journey to the West story line? Hell no, but The Monkey King 2 does fix many of the issues that plagued the first entry and does provide a decently fun and entertaining fantasy flick…even if there are plenty of issues to address still.

Friday, December 23, 2016

Lone Wolf and Cub: Baby Cart in the Land of Demons (1973)

Director: Kenji Misumi
Notable Cast: Tomisaburo Wakayama, Akihiro Tomikawa, Akiray Yamauchi, Hideji Otaki, Taketoshi Naito, Fuijo Suga, Rokko Toura, Shingo Yamashiroas, Tomomi Sato, Michiyo Ookusu, Koji Fujiyama, Sumida Kazuyo, Bin Amatsu, Taizen Shishido, Eiji Okada, Minoru Ohki

Finally, the downward spiral of the Lone Wolf and Cub franchise ends. After a slightly off beat western influenced entry (Baby Cart to Hades) and an entry that fully embraced its exploitative elements (Baby Cart in Peril), the fifth entry to this critically acclaimed series is back to running with all of the great things about Lone Wolf and Cub. You can say that a lot of this happens because of the return of Kenji Misumi to the director’s chair, which is a huge part of it, but Lone Wolf and Cub: Baby Cart in the Land of Demons is just a better, more cohesive film all around. The artistic merits have come back into the fold, the performances are top notch, and the writing might be the most fluid that the series has seen thus far. While the first two entries certainly receive a bulk of the praise for this franchise, Baby Cart in the Land of Demons is just as good – and I’ll go there – if not slightly better than both of the first films. It’s a remarkable piece of chanbara cinema that takes the best artistic aspects and gives it that Lone Wolf spin in all the best ways.

Thursday, December 22, 2016

Pornostar (1998)

Director: Toshiaki Toyoda
Notable Cast: Koji Chihara, Onimaru, Akaji Maro, Tetta Sugimoto, Rin Ozawa, Kiyohiko Shibukawa

Rock 'n roll, slo-motion, passing Tokyo citizens, and one pissed off dude in a green coat walking towards the camera kick off Mr. Toyoda's debut (well technically he made Unchain 1st, but I digress) film, Pornostar, which no, porn has nothing at all to do with this film, but it will grab your attention, no?

 Arano, the lad in the green coat, bumps into a few people, and eventually a Yakuza, in which he really, really hates... not that particular Yakuza, but them in general. So he begins to kill, and kills some more, and more, and so on. That is the plot. Not much to it, but there doesn't need to be, and no, that is not by any means spoiling anything. The premise is a dude in a green coat hates the Yakuza and begins to kill them.

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (2016)

Director: Gareth Edwards
Notable Cast: Felicity Jones, Diego Luna, Ben Mendelsohn, Donnie Yen, Mads Mikkelsen, Alan Tudyk, Riz Ahmed, Jiang Wen, Forest Whitaker, Jimmy Smits, James Earle Jones

Even before The Force Awakens was released, I was already feeling more hyped for Rogue One. The talent on and off screen for the film partnered with the concept of having a team of renegades steal the plans for the Death Star to kick off the events of A New Hope just appealed to me in so many more ways. Now that the first Star Wars Story is out to reign destruction on the box office worldwide, the question has to be asked…does it fulfill on those promises? Quite frankly, it does. After a slew of worrisome turns concerning massive reshoots, changed tones, and new talent being brought in to make it more Star Wars-y, Rogue One would seemingly pull off exactly what it intended to do: expand the universe without stepping too far out of bounds to alienate the fans. In fact, it rides the line so well that it may end up being one of the best Star Wars films to date falling shy of The Empire Strikes Back, but rising above the others by limiting the fantasy elements and adding in enough grit and darkness to make it feel like its own film. It’s still definitely an entry into this iconic franchise with some of its fan pandering and it could have gone darker for my tastes, but still the film massively entertains and retains that kind of emotional punch needed for this story to add to the layering of the original trilogy.

Sunday, December 18, 2016

The Blood Splatter: 2016 Action Vol. 2 [The Take, The Monkey King, Rabid Dogs]

THE TAKE (2016)

Director: James Watkins

Notable Cast: Idris Elba, Richard Madden, Charlotte Le Bon, Kelly Reilly, Jose Garcia, Anatol Yusef, Jorge Leon Martinez, Eriq Ebouaney, Daniel Westwood, Alex Fondj

When Bastille Day changed its name to The Take for international audiences, I was disappointed that the film would have such a forgettable and meaningless title. Yet, now that I've seen the film, it might be a fitting warning. While The Take is not a bad film by any means, it is a film that is wholly forgettable and rather meaningless despite a concept that should amount to so much more. Throughout the entire film, the script, characters, and concept would repeatedly give the audiences hints of a better film and still The Take tends to flat line when it’s needed. At times, it feels like a Luc Besson action production and when the film is on its A-game, it fits right up there with some of his underrated action gems. However, those moments are few and far between as The Take is missing any kind of chemistry or fun to be had. Sure, Elba takes a few hard ass wise cracks at his would-be spastic thief partner during the duration of the film, but none of the cast has enough on screen pizzazz to sell it. The plot is a decent one, turning current events into a kind of action mystery for our two leads to solve, but it never runs with its social commentary. A corrupt group of people using the heightened tensions of people versus the banking system to cover their tracks? This should have worked as action 101. Yet it just falls into generic action film traps. The biggest problem that arises is that the action is meant to be too Bourne like to capture the badassness that Elba is meant to extrude. It's not terrible like Greengrass or Megaton and his protégé, but it's meant to replicate that style and it undercuts much of the better action that is obviously there.

Friday, December 16, 2016

Black Tavern, The (1972)

Director: Teddy Yip Wing-Cho
Notable Cast: Ku Feng, Tung Li, Shih Szu, Kong Ling, Kwok Chuk-Hing, Barry Chan, Yeung Chi-Hing, Dean Shek, Wang Hsieh, Yue Fung

After being blown away by The Lady Hermit, I was quick to throw its semi-sequel The Black Tavern to the top of my list to watch. The film came with some solid recommendations from fellow Shaw Brothers fanatics, but it still seems to be an overlooked classic that doesn’t get nearly the amount of praise that it should. The Black Tavern is an effective and ambitiously trimmed martial arts thriller that makes phenomenal use of its rather limited settings and its list of villainous thieves which culminates in a plethora of iconic wuxia style battles worthy of being included in the fabled Shaw Brothers catalog. It might seem like a simple set up, but The Black Tavern features a number of top notch performances and more than a handful of twists that will have the audience hooked and their mouths agape.

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

Rurouni Kenshin - Part II: Kyoto Inferno (2014/2016) and Rurouni Kenshin - Part III: The Legend Ends (2014/2016)

Director: Keishi Otomo
Notable Cast: Takeru Satoh, Emi Takei, Munetaka Aoki, Kaito Oyagi, Tatsuya Fujiwara, Ryunosuke Kamiki, Yu Aoi, Maryjun Takahashi, Ryosuke Miura, Yusuke Iseya, Tao Tsuchiya, Yosuke Eguchi, Min Tanaka, Masaharu Fukuyama

After kicking off the franchise with such a great entry like Rurouni Kenshin – Part I: Origins, there was only one place to go with the series: more epic. The following two sequels, Part II: Kyoto Inferno and Part III: The Legend Ends, are essentially one four-and-a-half-hour sequel split into two parts. They were not going to fuck around when they decided to go epic, I suppose, and this was the manner in which they chose to embrace it. The two films are essentially one film, so for my review I decided it was fitting to review them together.  Both are strong entries into the franchise, although neither quite hits the heights of the original in blending fun, entertainment, heart, and action in such an effective manner. In fact, it’s the epic nature of these films that is both a blessing and a curse. Yes, both films take the series to the next level of complexity, but it lacks a bit of that efficient storytelling that made the first one so good. Both are still highly entertaining blends of classic samurai storytelling with modern scale, so keep that in mind as you dig into Kyoto Inferno and The Legend Ends and enjoy them for the massive scale sequels they are.

Friday, December 9, 2016

Creepshow 2 (1987)

Director: Michael Gornick
Notable Cast: George Kennedy, Dorothy Lamour, Frank Salsedo, Holt McCallany, David Holbrook, Don Harvey, Dan Kamin, Paul Satterfield, Jeremy Green, Daniel Beer, Page Hannah, Lois Chiles, Tom Wright, Stephen King, Tom Savini

The original Creepshow remains one of the cornerstones to the horror anthology, a format that has seen a revival in recent years that very obviously uses the style and lessons of the George Romero/Stephen King collaboration as a blueprint, but the second film in the series tends to carry a lot of baggage with it as being a massive disappointment. With the recent re-release of Creepshow 2 on Blu Ray in the US via Arrow Video though, I hope that fans of the original give this film another shot. That’s because, while it isn’t as good as the original one and it is flawed overall, it’s not nearly as horrendous as many of the reviews of it would indicate. I think it’s due time that most horror fans and cult cinephiles give it another shot and there is not a better time to do it than with this latest version that sees the film in its best form in a long, long time.

Wednesday, December 7, 2016

SiREN (2016)

Director: Gregg Bishop
Notable Cast: Hannah Fierman, Chase Williamson, Justin Welborn, Michael Aaron Milligan, Hayes Mercure, Randy McDowell, Lindsey Garrett

The segment known as Amateur Night in the original V/H/S film was easily one of the highlights of that horror anthology and when it was announced that it was being developed into a full film, I was all for it. Adding to that hype was getting Gregg Bishop to direct it, who was easily one of the names to watch after the hilariously fun Dance of the Dead back in 2008. The only thing that killed some of my excitement was that it was being made by Chiller and really, I did have some worry that it would be made for TV quality. While the film, going under the name SiREN (and yes, it's spelled that way officially), does have some issues with its budget, the results are still surprisingly fun and refreshing as it continually world builds and adds in a level of thoughtful writing and execution to the gimmicks of the short film it was based on.

Monday, December 5, 2016

Party Night (2017)

Director: Troy Escamilla
Notable Cast: Tommie Vegas, Billy Brannigan, Destinie Orndoff, Ryan Poole, Laurel Toupal, Drew Shotwell, Candice D’Meza, Lawrence McKinney, Jimmy Phillips

There is a moment in Party Night where the small group of teen friends find a VHS player in the secluded house in the woods in which they are staying. Next to it, a stack of old school slashers like Halloween. One of the teens in the group gets excited, talking about growing up with the films and his love for them. Proclaiming at one point that their post-Prom little party needs to add a viewing of The Mutilator to the agenda. This moment is a key point at understanding the approach and heart that Party Night brings to the table. The film is flawed, obviously restrained by its limited budget and eager learning talents in front and behind the camera, but there is a youthful excitement in its unabashed throwback 80s style that is paralleled by this teenage character and his oddly specific reference to a cult classic like The Mutilator. This film is not perfect, but it has a meta style quality in this moment that threads through most of the film that may strike a chord with slasher fans that are looking for a film that wants to recreate the style and approach to those ultra-low budget slashers of decades gone…warts and all.

Sunday, December 4, 2016

The Blood Splatter: 2016 Horror Vol. 5 [I Am the Pretty Thing that Lives in the House, Clown, Ava's Possessions]

I Am the Pretty Thing that Lives in the House (2016)

Director: Oz Perkins

Notable Cast: Ruth Wilson, Paula Prentiss, Bob Balaban, Lucy Boynton

Haunting and poetic, I Am the Pretty Thing that Lives in the House is not at all a film for most mainstream horror fans. Instead of a haunted house film that's full of tricks and things flying around like 2016 seems to have been full of, this is a film built on the nuance of character and an atmosphere so subtle in its crafting that often enough it never must show anything to get under the skin. It's driven by what amounts to 80% monologue from our lead actress and it hammers down on the simple horrors of its tale instead of the big jump scares the haunted house genre is known for. It uses its narrator to balance out its slow-burn visuals and is very much driven by the nuance of its language – words and visuals – to deliver the atmosphere. Considering its plot about a young nurse taking care of an elderly horror author, it’s a fitting way to tell its story.

Friday, December 2, 2016

Sword Master (2016)

Director: Derek Yee
Notable Cast: Kenny Lin, Peter Ho, Yiyan Jiang, Mengjie Jiang

There are a lot of emotions that I had before I even started to watch Sword Master that I had to take into consideration to give this film context. Sword Master is a remake of the overlooked and underappreciated Shaw Brothers wuxia classic Death Duel, a film that easily makes my list for best films from the iconic studio, and it also marks the first collaboration between two powerhouses of Chinese cinema: director Derek Yee and producer Tsui Hark. Even before this film was released, the combination of these facts made this film an emotional roller coaster for me. Derek Yee knows the original material, he was the lead actor in Death Duel, but Tsui Hark has been notorious for over producing films into a sort of CGI nightmare that has undermined plenty of fun films (including the Detective Dee films and the horrendous misfire Flying Swords of Dragon Gate). So even sifting through the context of expectations for Sword Master was a complicated matter, but I kept my hopes up thinking it could end up being the next great wuxia film.

Thursday, December 1, 2016

Driller Killer, The (1979)

Director: Abel Ferrara

Notable Cast: Abel Ferrara, Carolyn Marz, Baybi Day, Harry Schultz II, Alan Wynroth, Maria Helhoski, James O’Hara, Richard Howorth, D.A. Metrov

Love him, hate him, used to love him and currently hate him, it all comes off as a bit irrelevant now because Abel Ferrara is a film maker who has made his mark on the industry. Whether it's his version of a science fiction classic like Body Snatchers, his acclaimed grindhouse flick Ms. 45, or even any of his documentaries and/or music videos, he has touched on damn near every genre of film, so it was a treat when Arrow Video decided to give his early grindhouse horror flick The Driller Killer a wonderful new release. While the grindhouse classic mad artist flick rarely gets mentioned as one of his best, which is what happens when you have so many great films to your filmography, this new Blu Ray release is a prime opportunity to look back at this punk rock fueled spin on the social disconnect and appreciate it for the aggressive boundary pushing that it attempts. Like its director, it can be a love it or hate it kind of film, but it is hard to deny that this film doesn’t lay a lot of the groundwork for a ground breaking artist like Ferrara.

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Sky on Fire (2016)

Director: Ringo Lam

Notable Cast: Daniel Wu, Zhang Ruoyun, Joseph Chang, Zhang Jingchu, Amber Kuo, Fan Guang-yao, Wayne Lai, Philip Keung, Cheung Siu-fai, Ying Batu

Despite mixed reviews, Ringo Lam’s comeback action thriller Wild City was still a decent return that showcased a director who was trying to blend his classic Hong Kong action chops with a slightly more modern approach. When it was announced that his next film would be Sky on Fire, going with a title scheme that would indicate a throwback to previous films from the golden age of Hong Kong cinema like City on Fire, Prison on Fire, or School on Fire, there is obviously a lot of expectations that come with that. Partner it with some solid marketing and Daniel Wu to anchor the lead, this film had momentum to go with those initial expectations too. So perhaps it’s not all that shocking that Sky on Fire comes off as disappointing in the end. Sure, this is a film that attempts to recreate the Ringo Lam style of yesteryear with its plentiful action and design, but it’s a film that ultimately rings off as a hollow recreation rather than a film that belongs in the same echelon. There are moments, sparks if you will, where one can see it start to reclaim the style, but it doesn’t have enough emotional resonance and effective narrative flow to make it work.

Sunday, November 27, 2016

Hidden Power of the Dragon Sabre, The (1984)

Director: Chor Yuen

Notable Cast: Derek Yee, Ti Lung, Alex Man Chi-Leung, Cherie Chung Cho-Hung, Ku Feng, Lo Lieh

During my recent Shawtember binge that saw a serious round of Derek Yee Shaw film consumption (ultimately leading up to my article over on the Celestial Pictures site HERE), I ended up reviewing the first two Heaven Sword and Dragon Sabre films. While neither film necessarily blew me away, falling to be some flawed films in the usually fun and dynamic filmography of director Chor Yuen, they were still decent films that got better as they went. The third film in this franchise, called The Hidden Power of the Dragon Sabre because I guess that Heaven Sword was not worthy of making it into the title this time around, comes six years after the first two. Six years doesn’t seem like a long time for many franchises, but in the realm of Shaw Brothers this meant a huge difference in tone and style. Hidden Power doesn’t necessarily work all the time, it fixes a few issues from its predecessors and falls into a few new traps, but it is perhaps the most entertaining of the three films just in sheer outrageousness.

Saturday, November 26, 2016

Call of Heroes (2016)

Director: Benny Chan
Notable Cast: Sean Lau, Eddie Peng, Louis Koo, Wu Jing, Yuan Quan, Jiang Shuying, Liu Kai-chi, Berg Ng, Sammy Hung, Philip Keung, Xing Yu

From the time that it was announced, under the title The Deadly Reclaim before it was changed to Call of Heroes, there was a lot of hype behind this film. Between the stacked cast of current A-list actors, the legendary Sammo Hung as action director, and Benny Chan behind the director’s chair, this film was going to have to live up to a lot of expectations. With a concept that can be described as a wuxia western, Call of Heroes lives up to a lot of those expectations in many surprising ways. The film is one that had to sit with me for a while before writing this review because many of its themes and approaches were ones that didn’t necessarily strike home initially, but blossomed over a bit of time and reflection. Call of Heroes is not a film for everyone, particularly those who are unable to jive with modern Chinese cinema’s use of spectacle and CGI, but for those looking for a solid entertaining time with some shockingly creative results than this film fits that just fine.

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Flag of Iron, The (1980)

Director: Chang Cheh

Notable Cast: Phillip Kwok, Chiang Sheng, Lu Feng, Lung Tien-Hsiang, Chan Shen, Wong Lik, Yu Tai-Ping, Lam Sui-Kwan, Wong Ching-Ho, Wang Han-Chen

Remakes might dominate many of the discussions for cinephiles in many social circles, but it’s not like they are a new concept by any means. For as long as film has been made, remakes, reboots, and reloads have been an option for film makers and studios to employ. However, it wasn’t necessarily as common during certain eras. The Shaw Brothers era of Hong Kong cinema was one of them where remakes were rare. They did exist though and The Flag of Iron is one of them. The Flag of Iron is a remake of the widely praised Ti Lung and David Chiang film The Duel, but this time around it’s not the more dramatic and political aspects that take the center stage. No, this is a Venom mob film and that means even more gimmicks and cheese. Fortunately, the film keeps a lot of the key plot elements that made the story effective and it’s certainly entertaining, but it’s hard not to see the glaring flaws and lack of dramatic heft in this version.

Sunday, November 20, 2016

Lone Wolf and Cub: Baby Cart in Peril (1972)

Director: Buichi Saito
Notable Cast: Tomisaburo Wakayama, Akhiro Tomikawa, Yoichi Hayashi, Michi Azuma, Asao Koike, Hiroshi Tanaka, Tatsuo Endo, Asao Uchida, Shin Kishida, So Yamamura

Is it that strange that director Kenji Misumi would want to take a break from directing Lone Wolf and Cub movies after making three of them in one year? Not at all, but the fourth film in this acclaimed franchise could have used his talents in executing its concept. Lone Wolf and Cub: Baby Cart in Peril is easily the weakest of the films in the new Criterion box set thus far, continuing a downward slide in quality for the series since the second one, and it sincerely misses a lot of the artistic merit that Misumi would have brought into the fold. The film is still outrageously entertaining, almost to the point of reaching new heights of silliness for the ultra-violent series, and deserves some credit for making a lot of its flaws into enjoyable tidbits of grindhouse fun, but it suffers greatly from an overly complicated plot and lacks the focus to drive home its better concepts and characters.

Saturday, November 19, 2016

The Gruesome Twosome (1967) / A Taste of Blood (1967)


Director: Herschell Gordon Lewis
Notable Cast: Elizabeth Davis, Gretchen Wells, Chris Martell, Rodney Bedell, Ronnie Cass, Karl Stoeber, Dianne Wilhite, Andrea Barr, Dianne Raymond, Sherry Robinson

One of the bigger issues that can plague a horror comedy is how the genre lacks the insight to make them work TOGETHER. While The Gruesome Twosome might earn a few credits for being one of the first to attempt blending the two genres, it doesn't necessarily do them well. The film tends to have a funny scene, followed by a horror scene, followed by a funny scene, followed by a horror scene, etc. It doesn't do both at the same time. It just trades off on slapstick basic comedy and then HGL's brand of splatter horror. While there are moments that work, not all of them do and when they don't, like the opening sequence of two wigs talking to one another about the story that is about to unfold (?!), it fails miraculously. Not only that, but the film seems very hesitant to even work any deeper plot than the basics into the film to get those scenes to flow together outside of the specific moments.

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

The Blood Splatter: 2016 Horror Vol. 4 [The Invitation, What We Become, Martyrs]

Director: Karyn Kusama
Notable Cast: Logan Marshall-Green, Tammy Blanchard, Michiel Huisman, Emayatzy Corinealdi, Lindsay Burdge, Jordi Vilasuso, Mike Doyle, Jay Larson, John Carroll Lynch, Karl Yune, Toby Huss, Michelle Krusiec, Marieh Delfino

This review will seem irrelevant to the experience that The Invitation gives its audience. While there is a love it or hate it kind of approach to this film, which I have been so graciously made aware of, this is a film that is meant to be experienced and its slow burn abilities ensure that. There is an overpowering sense of unease that bleeds into a paranoia which impeccably drives the narrative, punctuated by phenomenal performances and an atmosphere of complete engagement with the audience. The setting, the lighting, the score, the pacing - they are all lavishly simple and viciously effective in their execution from director Karyn Kusama and I was engrossed from the opening scene until the hollowing climax with one of the best final visuals I have seen in horror all year. The Invitation is one of those films that simply takes its simple idea and layers it so densely with subtle details that I was easily drawn into its melodramatic tones and huge credit has to be given to the film for that.

Sunday, November 13, 2016

Rurouni Kenshin - Part I: Origins (2012/2016)

Director: Keishi Otomo
Notable Cast: Takeru Satoh, Emi Takei, Munetaka Aoki, Teruyuki Kagawa, Yu Aoi, Koji Kikkawa, Gou Ayano, Genki Sudo, Taketo Tanaka, Yosuke Eguchi, Eiji Okuda
Also known as: Rurouni Kenshin

With another entry into “why the hell didn’t this get a full US release earlier,” Rurouni Kenshin (or as the new US release is called Rurouni Kenshin - Part I: Origins) finally drops on home video via Funimation and after watching it I have to ask that question again. Truthfully, there are a lot of things about the film that would make a company feel hesitant to release the film including that it’s a live action adaption of a well-known anime and it’s a samurai action film which can be hard to sell to the general US public. However, the film is phenomenal. The first part of a trilogy, all of which have already gotten a release in Japan, Rurouni Kenshin takes a lot of classic Japanese samurai themes and imagery and powers it with a quirky sense of timing and then wraps it all in ridiculously high energy sword fighting action sequences. Sure, the film with its strong sense of Japanese history and culture can be a tough sell for American audiences, but the film is so impressively executed that it comes with some of the highest recommendations we can offer here.

Sunday, November 6, 2016

Doctor Strange (2016)

Director: Scott Derrickson
Notable Cast: Benedict Cumberbatch, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Tilda Swinton, Rachel McAdams, Benedict Wong, Mads Mikkelsen, Scott Adkins, Benjamin Bratt

There were a lot of mixed feelings I had when Doctor Strange finished. The Marvel Cinematic Universe is already a series of films that has given me some mixed feelings as a cinephile lately because there is most certainly a formula that they use and it’s made to appeal to the great common denominator of cinema goers. Yes, finally, the MCU is starting to experiment within the reach of the formula and it has garnered some fun films. Guardians of the Galaxy utilized the quirk and charm of director/writer James Gunn to sell its space opera. Ant-Man attempted the Marvel heist flick to mild success. So really, when Disney and the Marvel movie machine decided to attack the realm of mysticism with Doctor Strange, perhaps I got my hopes up a bit too high that they would try to jump the proven track. Instead of a truly unique cinematic Marvel experience, Doctor Strange is the usual MCU fair that garners the same successes and failures of many of the previous films and it generally adheres to the formula pretty strictly – which is kind of sad considering the potential. The film does have a lot of great trippy, psychedelic visuals to go with it and it has that great Marvel sense of fun to go with it, but it’s hard to not be at least slightly disappointed that the film didn’t go further with its concepts. Then again, the film has a 90+% on Rotten Tomatoes and an A Cinemascore, so the people have already generally spoken for the film.

Saturday, November 5, 2016

Color Me Blood Red (1965) / Something Weird (1967)

Director: Herschell Gordon Lewis
Notable Cast: Gordon Oas-Heim, Candi Conder, Elyn Warner, Pat Finn-Lee, Jerome Eden, Scott H. Hall, Jim Jaekel, Iris Marshall

Going into the fifth film of the Feast box set, there was some decently high expectations to go with Color Me Blood Red. The concept of a mad artist who becomes obsessed with using blood as a red paint fits right into the Herschell Gordon Lewis splatter film concept and the film is regularly referenced as part of his “blood trilogy” that is completed with Two Thousand Maniacs and Blood Feast (both of which I enjoyed). However, when compared to two films that are used in this trilogy, Color Me Blood Red is easily the weakest film and one that suffers from a lack of focus and a mixed intent. It’s fun, but hardly the quality that it might have had.

Friday, November 4, 2016

Killbillies (2016)

Director: Tomaz Gorkic
Notable Cast: Nina Ivanisin, Lotos Sparovec, Nika Rozman, Sebastian Cavazza, Jurij Drevensek, Manca Ogorevc, Damjana Cerne, Matic Bobnar, Damir Leventic, Ajda Smrekar, Liza Marija Grasic, Kaja Janjic
Also known as: Idyll

On the back of the box, Killbillies claims that this film is “proving that the American South does not hold a monopoly on sexually depraved, bloodthirsty hillbillies” and this is a key statement to understand just what this film holds. Not just in the content that the film contains, but the approach that it takes. In many ways, if it wasn’t for the language being spoken, Killbillies never really feels like a foreign film in a traditional way – even by modern horror standards. This is a film that whole-heartedly embraces the backwoods killer formula and style as its focus in some very American ways. In this manner, it is disappointing as Killbillies is perhaps the first film I’ve seen that is Slovenian and I felt like it so desperately wanted to be underground American horror that it somewhat loses an identity it might have had. Truthfully, the film is not nearly as bad as the title would have indicated, but it’s also a film that firmly rests as a Wrong Turn film with the attempted execution of the visual and tonal style of Alexander Aja’s The Hills Have Eyes. Not terrible, but not great either.

Thursday, November 3, 2016

Reign of Assassins (2010)

Directors: Su Chao-pin, John Woo

Notable Cast: Michelle Yeoh, Jung Woo-sung, Wang Xueqi, Barbie Hsu, Shawn Yue, Kelly Lin, Guo Xiaodong, Jiang Yiyan, Paw Hee-ching, Pace Wu, Leon Dai

It took them over half of a decade, but finally Reign of Assassins hits the US in home video release. Fortunately, for those martial arts movie fans like myself who held out on importing it, the film was worth the wait. Co-directed by the iconic John Woo and starring the talented Michelle Yeoh, Reign of Assassins is a modern wuxia that blends the classic elements of the style with the modern splash that impresses beyond the normal sense of outrageous epic tones that come with the genre. It’s effective in its heart, stylish in its action, and ultimately a fun and thrilling ride that fans will be wanting to experience. Yes, Reign of Assassins was worth the time spent waiting for it.

Saturday, October 29, 2016

Hex (1980)

Director: Kuei Chih-hung

Notable Cast: Tanny Tien Ni, Wang Jung, Chen Szu-chia

As a martial arts cinema fan, I’ve mostly dedicated my time to digging into many of the films from the Shaw Brothers catalog, but martial arts epics are not the only films that the iconic studio made. They also dabbled in a handful of other genres including exploitation, thrillers, and horror. For the most part, I’ve always stuck with the martial arts films, but with the recent release of Hex on Blu Ray via 88 Films in the UK I decided it was high time that I dig much further into what these Shaw Brothers horror films have to offer. Hex is one of those films that feels like a tale of two movies. The first half is one film and the second half another. Occasionally this style can work, or at least be entertaining in certain cases, but for Hex it just feels disjointed and uneven. The film is fun, while not nearly bat shit insane as some of the other Hong Kong horror films of the era, but it’s hardly a film that uses its better aspects in ways to maximize the narrative. Even fans of Shaw Brothers horror may find it slightly disappointing.

Two Thousand Maniacs! (1964) / Moonshine Mountain (1964)


Director: Herschell Gordon Lewis

Notable Cast: William Kerwin, Connie Mason, Jeffrey Allen, Ben Moore, Gary Bakeman, Shelby Livingston, Jerome Eden, Stanley Dyrector, Linda Cochran, Yvonne Gilbert, Michael Korb, Vincent Santo

Going into this latest – and very expansive – box set about Herschell Gordon Lewis’ filmography, there was only one film I had seen of his previously and that is Two Thousand Maniacs!. It’s easily considered one of his best and it even warranted a remake in the form of 2001 Maniacs in 2005. On my second watch of the film I found that I enjoyed it a lot more than I initially did and that the exploitative horror film really does deserve the love as a simple and effective little flick. This is due to the fact that the film runs at a fairly effective (and fun) pacing, rarely holding up the movement of its narrative for much more than the next kill sequence or plot progression. It delivers on the kills, giving some uniquely “backwoods” kinds of sequences that intrigue in their creative spirit, but also unsettle the audience with the amount of ‘fun’ the villains of the film are having while our protagonists writhe and beg against the horrific things that happen. The film also pegs in a great little twist into the finale that adds a rather smart bend to the straight forward approach that it used for the rest of the film and sets itself aside.

However, Two Thousand Maniacs! is not perfect and the one major piece that it lacks is a truly effective pair of protagonists for the audience to connect to. Both Connie Mason and William Kerwin can work as relatable leads (see Blood Feast), but the film is more concerned with building up the plot and kill sequences that it generally leaves them as bland characters. It’s not until the second half that it really starts to give them the feel of real characters and by then it’s a bit too late. Otherwise, outside of some silly performances and cheap editing, Two Thousand Maniacs! is a massively entertaining and energetic film worthy of a lot of the praise it has been given. If the rest of this box set can match the manic tone of this, it will be a blast to work through. 


Director: Herschell Gordon Lewis

Notable Cast: Charles Glore, Gordon Oas-Heim, Jeffrey Allen, Bonnie Hinson, Carmen Sotir, Ben Moore, J.G. Patterson Jr., Stanley Dyrector

For the fourth film in this Feast box set, Moonshine Mountain is a change of pace from the other three films. Instead of a blood soaked horror flick or an exploitation drama, this one is a backwoods dramedy about a country singer who goes out to the rural country to find inspiration for some new material. The resulting film then struggles to find its footing for the first half as a musical/fish out of water flick and sort of falls into being a moonshine powered action thriller with crooked cops and back road justice in the second half. Neither part is all that interesting in the end, unfortunately.

Perhaps I’m just not all that familiar with the idea of a country, hillbilly drama comedy with action and suspense pieces, but Moonshine Mountain was a struggle for me to latch onto as a film. None of the characters, outside of a few fun smaller secondary roles, seemed at all that interesting and the stuttering narrative doesn’t quite seem to know where it’s going either resulting in a film that occasionally overstays its welcome. The film is made with a decent enough amount of energy, plugging in plenty of songs and just enough of Lewis’ horror pieces in the final act (that seemingly come out of nowhere honestly) to keep things just off beat enough, but Moonshine Mountain is not even close to being one of the better films in this set. There are certainly a sect of fans out there that will enjoy this for being a time capsule of the drive in era, but I highly doubt I will ever find myself digging into this one again.

Written By Matt Reifschneider