Thursday, March 31, 2016

Great Hypnotist, The (2016)

Director: Leste Chan

Notable Cast: Xu Zheng, Karen Mok, Hu Jing, Lu Zhong, Wang Yaoqing

When it comes to Chinese filmmaking, whether it is from Hong Kong or not, I rarely think of the country as one that can power through with some thoughtful science fiction embracing, mind bending films. Cheesy action, occasional goofy comedy, sure, but never the kind of thriller that The Great Hypnotist represents. Truthfully, I did not have horribly high expectations for the film due to this assumption and perhaps that kind of lowered viewpoint made the viewing so surprisingly pleasant, but The Great Hypnotist takes the kind of effective thriller elements of Shutter Island and the character blurring aspects of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and crafts a pretty effective little movie. One that’s not quite perfect, but will probably go down as one of the better overlooked gems released in the United States this year.

Death Walks at Midnight (1972)

Director: Luciano Ercoli
Notable Cast: Susan Scott (Nieves Navarro), Simon Andreu, Peter Martell, Carlo Gentili, Claudie Lange, Ivano Staccioli, Fabrizio Moresco, Claudio Pellegrini, Luciano Rossi, Raul Aparici, Alessandro Perrella

After watching the latest release of Death Walks on High Heels, contained in the same box set as this film, I was stoked to dig into Death Walks at Midnight. If it was even half as clever and artistic as a giallo as the former, then this film was going to be impressive too. Fortunately, Death Walks at Midnight is a pretty effective little murder thriller, despite not being quite as good as High Heels, and the combination of actors, director, and writer proves to work effectively once again. The first half of the film is a bit rough when it comes to flow and narrative distinction, but by the time that Midnight hits full stride with its death walk it’s a vicious and shocking crime film worthy of the praise it receives. It might be a film that’s somewhat saved by the third act, but it’s a miraculous save that redeems a lot of the awkward set pieces from the first two acts.

Sunday, March 27, 2016

Death Walks on High Heels (1971)

Director: Luciano Ercoli
Notable Cast: Susan Scoot (Nieves Navarro), Frank Wolff, Simon Andreu, Carlo Gentili, George Rigaud, Jose Manuel Martin, Fabrizio Moresco, Luciano Rossi, Claudie Lange

While the giallo film era only lasted a handful of years in the late 60s and early 70s, there seems to be a very robust selection of films in that style that came out in a very short span. As someone decently new to the genre, I tend to go by recommendations from those around me and early on my brother touted the films of Ercoli as some that I needed to see. With the release of Arrow Video’s newest boxset Death Walks Twice (which includes Death Walks on High Heels and Death Walks at Midnight), the time seemed perfect to jump in. The earlier of the two films, Death Walks on High Heels, seemed the right place to start. Considering that both films form a sort of very loose trilogy of films featuring Ercoli’s wife in the lead role – the first one being Forbidden Photos of a Lady Above Suspicion, already conveniently reviewed by my brother HERE, but not included in this boxset – it seemed perfect for my further exploration of the giallo genre. Death Walks in High Heels is a rather intriguing film too. Similar to the giallo I reviewed earlier called What Have You Done to Solange?, High Heels is more intent on developing a mystery than it is about showcasing the stronger exploitation elements of killers and sex (although both obviously play key roles in that development) and it makes for a film that rises above a lot of the gimmicks of the genre and comes off as an artfully complex film that giallo fans are certain to enjoy.

Saturday, March 26, 2016

Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016)

Director: Zack Snyder
Notable Cast: Henry Cavill, Ben Affleck, Amy Adams, Jesse Eisenberg, Gal Gadot, Diane Lane, Jeremy Irons, Laurence Fishburne, Holly Hunter

At this point, I kind of feel bad for the DC cinematic universe. I mean, DC has always had a lot of trouble bringing their material to live action screen (outside of Batman – even then I think Nolan’s films tend to be overrated) and 2013’s Man of Steel actually made me kind of angry with its ultra-serious tone and shifty muted approach to the material. So I was being cautiously optimistic for Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice which acts as the second film of their official cinematic universe. There is a lot of fun ideas at play in the film, including pulling story elements from the all-time classic The Dark Knight Returns graphic novel, and I was actually quite supportive of Ben Affleck as Batman and their choice to go with an older, more gritty rendition of the character. It’s unfortunate that the film itself is such a gigantic mess. Warner and DC are obviously trying their hardest to play catch up with the Marvel Cinematic Universe and the desperation of their attempts at making money and crafting tent pole kick off films instead of good films reeks as Batman v Superman plays out. Enough so that I’m tempted to say it might actually be worse than Man of Steel – if only for its wasted potential.

Thursday, March 24, 2016

Wandering Ginza Butterfly (1972)

Director: Kazuhiko Yamaguchi
Notable Cast: Meiko Kaji, Tsunehiko Watase, Akiko Koyama, Koji Nanbara, Tatsuo Umemiya

Wandering Ginza Butterfly had me excited. Just the idea of combining the onscreen presence and talents of Meiko Kaji with the director of Sister Street Fighter and Karate Bull Fighter screamed awesome. It could have been a match made in heaven. Could have. Wandering Ginza Butterfly is not nearly as exciting or awesome as I thought it would be. The film is not necessarily bad and in many ways the story is one ripe with some interesting social commentary and some fun performances. However, the film is also super scattered in its approach to its narrative and it feels uneven in a lot of ways because of it. It’s almost like the film was a bit unsure of what genre it wanted to be and so it just took turns leaping from one genre to the next. It’s easy to see why it has the cult following it does, but it’s also a film that pales in comparison to what it might have been or even to any other films in the filmographies of Kaji or director Kazuhiko Yamaguchi

Monday, March 21, 2016

Black Sabbath (1963)

Director: Mario Bava

Notable Cast: Boris Karloff, Michele Mercier, Lidia Alfonsi, Milo Quesada, Mark Damon, Susy Andersen, Massimo Righi, Rika Dialina, Glauco Onorato, Jacqueline Pierreux, Milly, Harriet Medin

The horror anthology is a kind of film that has been around for years and in the last decade it has seen a renewal of energy. Enough so that there are some fairly strong established franchises around the idea like V/H/S and ABCs of Death. However, most of anthologies in the last five decades still pale in comparison to the Mario Bava classic, Black Sabbath. It’s amazing to think that it has been over 50 years since the release of this trifecta of terror tales because the film has some stunning material and it showcases a director who is simply a natural at crafting tension and spooks over three different kinds of scripts. It’s not quite a perfect film, but it’s still a striking film that works some serious Italian horror magic into its stories to remain an impactful watch today.

Friday, March 18, 2016

Lady Snowblood (1973)

Director: Toshiya Fujita
Notable Cast: Meiko Kaji, Ko Nishimura, Toshio Kurosawa, Masaaki Daimon, Miyoko Akaza, Eiji Okada, Sanae Nakahara, Noboru Nakaya, Takeo Chii, Hitoshi Takagi, Akemi Negishi, Ko Nishimura

Occasionally, there are films that will grow with you over time. In many ways, a great film is one that strengthens with time and overcomes the bane of its own time context to reach a universal state. Lady Snowblood is one of these films that only gets better with time, in overall context and for me personally, which is something that not many films can say. There was always a knack for the Japanese cinema to produce these kinds of films including the likes of Lone Wolf and Cub, the Zatoichi franchise, and other iconic exploitation films of the yakuza genre, but Lady Snowblood might be one of the most interesting ones. On the surface, the film is often eclectic and abrasive – thanks to a leaping narrative and stylized approach – but with repeated viewings it opens up its many layers of detailing, symbolism, and intense off beat moments. This allows Lady Snowblood to only strengthen with time instead of collapse under its own contextual surroundings.

Sunday, March 13, 2016

Black Mama, White Mama (1973)

Director: Eddie Romero
Notable Cast: Pam Grier, Margaret Markov, Sid Haig, Lynn Borden, Zaldy Zshornack, Laurie Burton, Eddie Garcia

As mentioned in a few other reviews, 2016 is the year that I start exploring a few new genres, directors, and stars with open eyes. The ‘women in prison’ genre is one of those and truthfully, I have only seen a handful – with most of them being modern or foreign in nature. So the latest release from Arrow Video for Black Mama, White Mama fits right in with my new outlook. Granted, I don’t have the blessing of being able to really compare it to the context of its own genre – particularly since it’s a film that tends to be mentioned in conjunction with exploitation classics like The Big Bird Cage or The Big Doll House – so I will simply review it as someone new to the film. In this aspect, Black Mama, White Mama is a very fun film and one that earns some credit in the ridiculousness of how it plays out. It’s an uneven picture and it lacks the focus needed if it was actually going to carry a message to its adventure toned plot, but still…entertaining is as entertaining does and in that regard no one can overlook this film for how amusing it is.

Cart (2014)

Director: Boo Ji-young

Notable Cast: Yeom Jeong-ah, Moon Jeong-hee, D.O (of EXO), Kim Young-ae, Kim Kang-woo, Cheon Woo-hee

Boo Ji-young's Cart (카트), is a beautifully shot, phenomenally acted, drama that is strong on all fronts, though at times can get pretty heavy in trying to make you bring on the waterworks.

This film is based on an account of an actual strike a group of women brought to a supermarket when they were all laid off suddenly. I applaud these women (and eventually the man) who did something brave like this. Not enough people stand-up in this world to do what is right , no matter the consequence or pain it may bring upon you and others in doing so. I give the film props to the fullest for doing this. It greatly reminds me that one mustn't sit and take things as they are presented, if they are being presented with unjustly means.

Yeom Jeong-ah nails the role of this hardworking mother
who will do whatever it takes. Great arc in her character.

Yeom Jeong-ah, playing the lead, does an extraordinary job in her role, being the quiet, mild-mannered worker who does her part in the store and goes above and beyond everyday to make sure her son and daughter have their basic necessities in life. While the daughter doesn't have much to say or do, she adds a nice relief of simplicity, juxtapose to the more complex and dynamic relationship between the mother and son (played by EXO member D.O). He's stubborn, a bit cold, but in the end he means well, and has a small, but nice arc, and I was glad that the film kept cutting back to him and what was going on with he and his sister. I was worried they'd be forgotten about, but gladly wrong in this case.

There are a lot of characters in here and they are all well fleshed out for the most part, some being less broad in how much they show you of their personal lives and personalities at times, but I feel like you really get to know them all, and the factor of relatibility is very real and present. It keeps the film going, and you so desperately went them to succeed and get what they fairly deserve. The film is a cold but real reminder as to how unfair life can be sometimes.

Though it's only a supporting role, this is one of
Kim Kang-woo's best performances.
Another big positive that needs to be brought up is how well the film is shot. Off and on the entire time, I was like "Wow, what a great shot. Whoa! Wow!" and so on. The camera glides around, some of the framing is very interesting, you get a real sense of scope and power with the depth presented in the store and the distance the women begin to feel from their situations. Some absolutely gorgeous lighting is on display in several shots, and there is a very long take in which Kim Kang-woo's character is walking through the rally he and his co-workers have set up and it leads all the way to him taking stage and going quite far into a speech. That, perhaps, impressed me most of all.

The film is by no means perfect, and a thing that annoyed me was the music at times. There's nothing that takes me more out of a picture than overly blatant 'feel "this" emotion here' pieces of score, and it happens too often to keep track of here. The performances are so raw and real, and you already are so gutted by whats going on, that the music only beats it over your head to the point of annoyance at times.

Some of the realest characters I've seen in a long time. Even
the smaller roles were very nuanced and fleshed out. This is
as real of people as you could ever get in a film like this.

This is more of a nitpick, but I think the ending was a bit too exaggerated and by that time was beating a dead horse. I really felt the film and it's importance and message, and it's done so well, but the very last shot and sort of last scene in general just put me off a bit. Maybe it's just me, but that last bit sort of letdown.

In the end though, Cart is a fantastic drama, and has seemed to really go under the radar. I wasn't really excited for it initially, but I picked it up recently sort of impulsively and am very glad I did so. It is yet another work of cinema from South Korea that really needs to be seen. I can't recommend this one enough, though I must warn that a few moments do get a bit too forceful in trying to make you feel a certain. That said, it most definitely comes recommended.

Written by Josh Parmer

Thursday, March 10, 2016

Female Prisoner #701: Scorpion (1972)

Director: Shunya Ito
Notable Cast: Meiko Kaji, Rie Yokoyama, Yayoi Watanabe, Yoko Mihara, Akemi Negishi, Keiko Kuni, Yumiko Katayama, Emi Jo, Isao Natsuyagi

Exploitation films can be a massively hit or miss kind of thing. Firstly, either you get it or you don’t conceptionally speaking and secondly, the quality within that concept can be hugely diversified. For every Ms. 45 in quality there are a hundred pieces of generic cash in rape and revenge flicks. That’s my opinion anyway. It’s also the reason that my expectations for Female Prisoner #701: Scorpion were decently low. *For the record, I will just be referring to the film as Scorpion from this point out as that title is a bitch to type. It might also be the reason that I was impressed with the film as a whole too. While at times the exploitation can be a bit eye rolling as it seemingly forces in tons of ‘women in prison’ clichés, the resulting film is quite steeped in artistic merit and one that deserves to be seen as such. This is not just another pinku Japanese flick, this is one that rises above it in many ways.

Tuesday, March 8, 2016

Witch, The (2016)

Director: Robert Eggers
Notable Cast: Anya Taylor-Joy, Kate Dickie, Ralph Ineson, Harvey Scrimshaw, Ellie Grainger, Lucas Dawson

Despite the focus that “terror” receives in the world of horror films with questions of ‘is it scary’ or ‘did it shock you’ that get thrown around, the horror movies that really stick with the viewer are not the ones that make you jump necessarily, but the ones that get under your skin. Dread is wholly more powerful than terror in the cinematic world. The Witch, or as the marketing of the film would like it to be called The VVitch, is a film whose purpose is not to terrify as much as it is to unnerve, soaking its audience in a sort of permeating sense of fear, anxiety, and paranoia. To this extent, The Witch is massively successful and will probably be a forerunner in the ‘best horror of 2016’ category. However, the film may not be for all horror fans with its very subtle approach at narrative and theme. Don’t let that frighten you though, jump into the atmosphere and let the film work its own black magic.

Monday, March 7, 2016

Visions (2016)

Director: Kevin Greutert
Notable Cast: Isla Fisher, Anson Mount, Gillian Jacobs, Joanna Cassidy, Eva Longoria, Jim Parsons

Digging through some of the straight to home video horror material can be a bit…tedious. As I’ve mentioned before, the more movies you watch then the more you realize that there hasn’t really been anything original in decades (outside of technological advances) and it’s all about execution. This is why I struggled so much with most of Visions. Despite some decent execution overall, Visions is hardly anything remotely close to even feeling original and it’s run of the mill first two acts is yawn inducing supernatural thriller basics at their most formulaic. However, the film is almost – so close to being saved by its third act where it spins off into some solid horror thriller set pieces. Still, it’s a little too late to save the entire film experience, but for those looking for a fun supernatural thriller you could do much worse than Visions thanks to this spin.

Saturday, March 5, 2016

Shaolin Temple, The (1982)

Director: Chang Hsin Yen
Notable Cast: Jet Li, Ding Lan, Yu Hai, Hu Jianqiang, Jian-kui Sun, Pan Hanguang, Hui Neng, Wang Guangkuan, Yu Chenghui, Ji Chunhua, Pan Qingfu
Also known as: Shaolin Temple

Perhaps it’s just the circles of influence that I frequent or I have seemingly missed the memo, but The Shaolin Temple is fuckin’ fantastic and no one told me this. In the grander scheme of things, the film might be easy to overlook due to its many similarities to the legendary 36th Chamber of Shaolin (more on that in a minute), but I was impressed almost immediately with the strength of the film’s story and its insightful execution on screen. There are a few nitpicky things that I have against the film, but overall The Shaolin Temple was a massive delight that took the basic concepts of classic kung fu film and added a lot of heart and thematic strength to it. It’s unfortunate that it’s not spoken about more, even if it’s just in the martial arts spheres that I visit. It’s worth the watch.

Rise of the Legend (2016)

Director: Roy Chow
Notable Cast: Eddie Peng, Sammo Hung, Angelababy, Wang Luodan, Jing Boran, Zhang Jin, Wong Cho-lam, Qin Junjie, Jack Feng, Byron Mann, Gao Taiyu, Tony Leung Ka-fai

The character of Wong Fei Hung has seen a lot of different eras and stories in Hong Kong cinema. He’s been both side and lead characters and he’s been portrayed by some of the scene’s biggest stars like Jet Li and the like. So it’s not wholly surprising that as the Chinese film market starts getting bigger and bigger they would attempt to reboot the character for a new franchise. This is where Rise of the Legend comes into play. The film attempts to blend modern style and narrative with classic kung fu elements all the while establishing a new spin on a classic character for a whole new generation. The results are more mixed than one would hope, but the ideas are there and Rise of the Legend remains a fun movie and an intriguing way for a new generation to be introduced to the character. If only the film was a bit better, it would be easy to call this a fantastic reboot. As is, the film is enjoyable, but hardly the home run it could have been.

Friday, March 4, 2016

Sleepy Eyes of Death 1: The Chinese Jade (1963)

Director: Tokuzo Tanaka
Notable Cast: Raizo Ichikawa, Tamao Nakamura
Also known as: Nemuri Kyoshiro 1: Sappocho, Enter Kyoshiro Nemuri, the Swordsman, Nemuri Kyoshiro: The Chinese Jade

The Sleepy Eyes of Death franchise has always received a fair amount of praise from its cult fans and fans of chanbara films, so after finishing up the Zatoichi franchise I needed a new swordsman epic to focus my time on. The first film of this  portion of the series, which goes under a few different titles like The Chinese Jade, is a rather mediocre affair considering the hype that surrounds this series. On its surface, it’s a decently entertaining swordsman tale that takes a mystery plot and adds in a ton of pulpy popular elements to it, but the film thinks it’s much smarter and deeper than it actually is.

Wednesday, March 2, 2016

Stray Cat Rock: Delinquent Girl Boss (1970)

Director: Yasuharu Hasebe

Notable Cast: Akiko Wada, Meiko Kaji, Koji Wada, Bunjaku Han, Yuka Kemari, Tatsuya Fuji
Also known as: Allycat Rock: Female Boss

Thanks to companies like Arrow Video, a whole new generation can be introduced to films that are probably best understood by a completely separate generation. In the case of the Stray Cat Rock series, the first film and focus of this review Delinquent Girl Boss, there is a sense that the film is a slice of life and a capsule of time. It’s not always a good thing, mind you, and while Delinquent Girl Boss is certainly entertaining in its own ways, it definitely feels dated and the themes and stylistic approaches seem to be lost in the decades since its release. More or less, despite the wonderful release that this franchise received, this is about as cult as films get and you are either going to love what it has to offer or it's going to seem like an exercise in futility…unfortunately, I feel as though I fall more into the latter than the former.