Friday, January 31, 2020

Red Peony Gambler 5: Biographies of a Gambling Room (1969)

Director: Kosaku Yamashita
Notable Cast: Junko Fuji
AKA: Red Peony Gambler: Here Comes Oryu, Oryu, the Beautiful Woman Gambler

Even by the time I hit the fourth entry, the Red Peony Gambler franchise was running thin for the formula. All four are decent films, but knowing that I was only halfway through the entire run of the series made me hesitant to keep up my enthusiasm. There had been a firm formula established by the second film and by that fourth entry it already felt as though the series was heavily leaning on gimmicks to keep it afloat. It was still working, but there were plenty of red flags fluttering in the wind. Of course, leave it to the fifth film in the series to reignite my admiration. Red Peony Gambler 5: Biographies of a Gambling Room strips back much of the gimmicks from the last few films and focuses on a tightly woven script, impressive layered performances, and strong themes about death, the yakuza life, and roles of the parent.

Thursday, January 30, 2020

The Gentlemen (2020)

Directed by: Guy Ritchie
Notable cast: Matthew McConaughey. Charlie Hunnam, Colin Farrell, Henry Golding

Sometimes you can go home again. Guy Ritchie once again drops a film in his signature genre, the British gangster film, with a lot of his signature style and dialogue. Different now is the pace, no longer the breakneck sprint of Snatch, The Gentlemen has the intentional pace of a more tenured filmmaker, confidant enough in his story to let it breathe. Tying into the story as well, there is the idea of growing older and balancing modernization with maintaining what has worked until now. In its way, this is really good and leads to a pretty enjoyable movie overall, though not everything in this situation has aged especially well, unfortunately.

Monday, January 27, 2020

Ip Man and Four Kings (2019/2020)

Director: Fu Liwei
Notable Cast: Michael Tong, Lin Fengyi

With the continued international popularity of the Wilson Yip/Donnie Yen Ip Man series, so too is there continued popularity by film companies to cash in on it with their own Ip Man properties. To this point, there have been a handful of films that have done their brand of Ipsploitation well, including The Legend is Born and The Final Fight, so it was only a matter of time before we got our first perplexing addition to the genre. Of course, this is in reference to Ip Man and Four Kings. Using the Ip Man character, this film is essentially a stand-alone kung fu flick with little in the way of depth and thoughtfulness. It’s a silly film, an easy way to burn through 77 minutes (with credits), but it’s one that is thinly written and looks rushed to capitalize on the release of Ip Man 4. Don’t confuse them because, quite frankly, this one is a chore to sit through.

Sunday, January 26, 2020

The Turning (2020)

Director: Floria Sigismondi
Notable Cast: Mackenzie Davis, Finn Wolfhard, Brooklynn Prince, Barbara Marten, Joely Richardson, Kim Adis

January has been, at least in my lifetime, known as a month where studios dump questionable movies into theaters. In the last handful of years though, it has increasingly been a time period where genre films find a strong following. Whether it’s horror films that don’t quite fit in anywhere else during the year or action films that have a question mark looming over them, January has become a place where films either go to die – or find new life. This January has been no exception. Despite a horrific box office debut, Underwater proved to be a shockingly quality film and Bad Boys for Life has become a surprise box office juggernaut. The Turning, on the other hand, has proven to be neither despite some initial intrigue from the horror community.

Based on the very popular novella, The Turn of the Screw, The Turning is just the latest adaption to hit the silver screen. The novella has already been adapted numerous times including the incredible 1961 film The Innocents and as inspiration for other media including the upcoming Netflix series The Haunting of Bly Manor, the sequel to their critic and viewer acclaimed series The Haunting of Hill House, so there is hardly any shortage of versions to see of this film.  It’s not surprising then that another film based on this intellectual property would be slated for release, but with so many options to consume, one has to wonder just what The Turning would have to offer in this particular instance.

Saturday, January 25, 2020

Color Out of Space (2020)

Directed by: Richard Stanley
Notable cast: Nicolas Cage, Joely Richardson, Madeleine Arthur, Tommy Chong

Famous horror author, and extremely racist even for a turn of the century American man, HP Lovecraft was disappointed by the lack of the truly alien in horror and was inspired to write what is arguably his most famous story, The Colour Out Of Space. His most adapted work, it has been made into movies as disparate as Die, Monster, Die! and Die Farbe (The Color) and even directly inspired the Stephen King novel, Tommyknockers. What is it about this story that’s made it work for so long and adapt so well? Lovecraft’s stated goal: a truly alien threat.

A family farm is struck by a meteor that defies the laws of physics and radiates a bright otherworldly color. Soon the crops all begin to grow large and grotesque, tasting horrible, while animals start to become aggressive and mutate, and the family all slowly starts to go insane… all while implying that something intelligent, or at least conscious has taken up residence in the well. That’s the book’s basic set up, and from that spins this new take on Color Out Of Space, Richard Stanley’s first major film since his famous replacement on the ill-fated but fascinating dumpster fire The Isle Of Doctor Moreau. He further challenges himself by casting Nicolas Cage as the lead. A brief aside, I’ve always been of the belief that you don’t cast Nic Cage in a movie, you unleash him on a movie and if that movie is strong enough, he’ll improve it exponentially. If not… well, we’ve all seen the supercuts. I am happy to report, in this instance, Cage is an extremely welcome addition.

Friday, January 24, 2020

Bad Boys for Life (2020)

Directors: Adil El Arbi and Bilall Fallah
 Notable Cast: Will Smith, Martin Lawrence, Vanessa Hudgens, Joe Pantoliano

What do you get when you take a Michael Bay property, remove the man himself and take a swing at making a 90s style action movie in 2020? Bad Boys for Life, apparently. Impossible to talk about without at least touching on the originals, Bad Boys as a franchise is a Smith/Lawrence police action franchise. Smith is Det. Mike Lowrey, a trust fund baby who is a cop because he likes killing people. Martin Lawrence is Det. Marcus Burnett, a guy who’s a cop, apparently, to make Mike happy and to avoid his wife, Teresa, who’s only character trait is that she’s a nag. The first movie concerns identity confusion between the detectives who we had just met in a plot that would be embarrassing in a third movie, and the second (although better) does involve Mike and Marcus and some SWAT guys declaring and committing open war on Cuba. Your mileage may vary, but I’ve never liked these movies. Decently shot action and a collection of homophobic and race jokes that were awkward even in the era.

Sunday, January 12, 2020

Ip Man 4: The Finale (2019)

Director: Wilson Yip
Notable Cast: Donnie Yen, Wu Yue, Vanness Wu, Scott Adkins, Kent Cheng, Danny Chan, Chris Collins, Ngo Ka-nin, Vanda Margraf, Jim Liu, Lo Mang

Of the last decade and change, there have been a few action franchises that have stood out as defining of the time period. One of them was the surprise international success of the Ip Man franchise. It exploded the careers of director Wilson Yip and actor Donnie Yen while at the same time injecting a fresh dose of energy into the traditional martial arts film all around the world. It’s a series near and dear to my heart, so when it was announced that Ip Man 4 would be the last, it comes with a sense of sadness on its finality. While the film certainly cements itself as the last of the “official” series (good luck stopping the ongoing Ipsploitation subgenre though) there is a lot of fascinating approaches to the film that make it feels like this series still has a lot to say, even if the end result of this entry is more muddled than the rest. Ip Man 4: The Finale will deliver on the basics that fans have come to expect, through action and heart, but it’s some of the wild new elements that make this one such a fascinating end to the series.

Underwater (2020)

Directed by: William Eubank
Notable cast: Kristen Stewart, Vincent Cassel, TJ Miller, Jessica Henwick

Underwater is a fascinating movie to try and review critically. In a lot of ways, it’s a deeply problematic script and a movie out of time, but it’s also handled very deftly with supreme direction, acting, and cinematography. It’s a disaster movie and creature feature all smashed into what is ultimately a harrowing, breakneck couple of hours at the theater.

The streamlined plot starts with Norah, very adroitly played by Kristen Stewart (who I normally like anyway, but is notably acting a step up from her normal “Prozac” energy level) in a deep-sea control platform for a nearby giant drill. This is a sci-fi concept, and deeply a sci-fi movie, in equal measure to its horror and it is a big pill to swallow early on. If you decide you’re along for this ride from here, however, it doesn’t ask for a much deeper suspension of disbelief, as the station inevitably starts buckling, collapsing and imploding under the unimaginable pressure. From here, Underwater is in nearly all ways a disaster movie and is internally consistent throughout. The stakes and danger are made immediately clear as she gathers other survivors and they face things like having to walk in really cool looking futuristic pressure suits on the seafloor, and the film is very explicit about what happens if the suit fails. Everything is collapsing behind them, driving the characters and plot ever forward as they head to the drill itself, in hopes of finding functioning escape pods.

Saturday, January 11, 2020

Depraved (2019)

Director: Larry Fessenden
Notable Cast: David Call, Alex Breaux, Joshua Leonard, Ana Kayne, Maria Dizzia, Chloe Levine, Owen Campbell

Iconic indie filmmaker Larry Fessenden had always wanted to make a modern Frankenstein film (or so I've heard) and after seeing his latest, Depraved, it's a wonder why it never got off of the ground until this point.  In general, Depraved is a brilliant modern rendition of the Frankenstein lore. It takes all of the themes of the classic horror and science fiction tale and spins it to resonate with current social and political elements - never in a way that bombards its audience with agendas or messages, but in a brilliant way to show just how universal (pun intended) the story remains.

Friday, January 3, 2020

The Grudge (2020)

Director: Nicolas Pesce
Notable Cast: Andrea Riseborough, Demian Bichir, John Cho, Betty Gilpin, Lin Shaye, Frankie Faison, Jacki Weaver, William Sadler, Tara Westwood, David Lawrence Brown, Zoe Fish

There’s a moment in The Grudge where a loving husband and father-to-be real estate agent, played by the vastly underrated John Cho, hesitates outside of the cursed house at the center of the film. Nothing in particular is there, no ghosts or sinister shadows. He looks around at the semi-desolate street in front of the characteristically part gothic home and begrudgingly moves to go in. It’s moments like these, caressed in the heavyweight of an existential dread knowing something is wrong with no clear indicator to what, which makes The Grudge franchise so timeless. It’s a franchise that is fairly well known around the world. It took Japan by storm with a variety of series from TV to reboots, but a 2004 remake starring Sarah Michelle Gellar, produced by Ghost House (Sam Raimi and his crew), and directed by the original writer/director Takashi Shimizu is what many people in America will remember. Yes, that remake had a couple of ill crafted sequels that hardly capitalized on the tone indicated in the scene above, but the series has lived on nonetheless.

The Gallows: Act II (2019)

Directors: Travis Cluff, Chris Lofing
Notable Cast: Ema Horvath, Chris Milligan, Brittany Falardeau

It was only back in 2015 that The Gallows solidified how much that found footage horror needed to slow down as a trend to be re-evaluated by more creative forces. It was a film that, in my humble opinion, represented essentially everything wrong with the sub-genre. It was thinly scripted and simply goes through the motions of its style and narrative. Nothing fresh. It was, worst of all, boring. Imagine my feelings when the trailer for a suddenly revealed sequel, The Gallows Act II, ended up in my feed online. Considering how The Gallows only cost $100K and ended up grossing $40 million plus, it wasn’t a reach. I’m a self-proclaimed franchise fanatic so it was only going to end up seeing the film, but I wasn’t fuckin’ happy about it. Truthfully, it could only be better, right? Where else can a franchise go but up when it starts off by hanging at the end of its own noose? It better go up. If it doesn’t, woof.