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.