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.