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Huan hun (2009)
Uneven but ultimately moving ghost revenge thriller from Singapore
BLOOD TIES (Singapore, 2009; Huan Hun) A police officer being framed for corruption is brutally murdered (along with his wife) by gangsters possesses the body of his surviving sister in order to mete out justice on his killers. It's an intriguing and ultimately moving story effectively played out. The pacing is inconsistent and sometimes seems to take a long time to get from point L to point M as the story develops, and some flashback and repeat flashbacks go on a lot longer than need be, but the film has satisfactory production values and its story possesses an honest heart as it delineates the familial relationships that are at its heart.
13 Eerie (2013)
Satisfyingly competent rage-zombie thriller despite routine story
Aided by legendary filmmaker Roger Christian (one of nearly a dozen producers or exec-producers assigned to this film), newbie director Lowell Dean has made a fairly good Canadian rage virus thriller out of this film. The title comes from a rural state penitentiary that used to house life-term inmates who were then experimented upon. Cut a few decades ahead to the present and it's the site of a field examination for six forensic undergraduate students, assembled to study prepares cadavers on the property to graduate the class and gain a coveted FBI position. With a dozen cadavers placed around the site for the three teams of two students each to investigate seems fine enough, until a few additional cadavers, dressed all in inmate orange, turn up and then get up and attack with extreme prejudice when all hell breaks loose. The cast, including such Canadian horror regulars as American MARY's Katherine Isabel and her fellow GINGER SNAPS 2 & 3 co-star Brendan Fletcher, does an excellent job, lending credibility to the characters and fluency to the story action. Makeup effects are pretty good and there's a workable score by Igor Vabrac and Ken Worth (the latter noted for Canadian TV series like GHOST TRACKERS and John Woo's ONCE A THIEF). Director Dean, mentored to one extent or another by Christian (see DVD Extras for some details on that) has a good sense of camera placement and movement and along with his cast gives the otherwise routine rage zombie story a satisfying value-added visual dimension.
The Corpse Grinders 3 (2012)
A good cast makes this CORPSE GRINDERS the best of Ted Mikels' Grindhouse trio
In Ted V. Mikels' ultra low-budget saga of a small town cat food company that, to avoid bankruptcy, finds a new and cheap source of meat: the local graveyard. When bodies become scarce, murder is added to the menu. Mikels is a talented director and the film is well organized and well-paced, but the pocket-change budget of his film and the severe lack of talent among his players loses any opportunity to really make THE CORPSE GRINDERS an enjoyable film, even as a comedy. The same goes for the first sequel, which rehashed the original's storyline while adding cat-like aliens fighting against dog-like aliens into the mix. But with THE CORPSE GRINDERS 3 (which Mikels exec produced for second-time Spanish director Manolito Motosierra) inherits a competent and spirited cast of actors who give the continuing storyline the kind of natural performances that make the film's macabre humor actually effective. Other than that, it's essentially the same storyline with new set of managers for the Lotus Cat Food Company who face the same kind of problems as did their predecessors. But it's a much more tolerable and even more likable film than the previous pair.
Bai wan ju e (2012)
A fun Chinese monster movie with humor
This is not, in fact, a new mega-gator from the folks at The Asylum, but rather it is a very entertaining Hong Kong comedy film originally titled MILLION DOLLAR CROCODILE. With a fine cast whose performances are muddled somewhat from over-the-top and campy English dubbing, this is a fun story about an 8-meter crocodile that is sold by its keeper to a sushi bar, but it soon escapes and ravages the countryside. Peopled by a diverse cast of eccentric and crazed characters, including (in fine Gamera kaiju style) a young boy who befriends the monster, the story plays out in typical giant monster fashion, only with plenty of slapstick and funny asides from the characters along the way. CGI visual effects are acceptable to very good. The orchestral music score, attributed to a Chinese composer named Dong Dongdong, is very supportive a well.
Girl Walks Into a Bar (2011)
Satisying ensemble film focuses on character confrontation & interaction
A compelling and agreeable multi-story ensemble dramedy from writer/director Sebastián Gutiérrez, who has made several of these anthology format films. I'm particularly fond of these kinds of ensemble films and while there remain some acceptably unresolved loose ends by the time GIRL WALKS INTO A BAR is over, it's a very intriguing and entertaining movie. While its storyline is pretty thin, I felt it maintained interest through an effective Tarantino-esque intersection of characters and plenty of engaging dialog and an abundance of stimulating eye candy. Its focus is on character confrontation and interaction rather than the unveiling of the beginning, middle, and ending of a storyline, although it's a few of its story lines converge and resolve intriguingly. One segment shifts into voice-over narration by one of the characters; another segment suddenly shifts into another character's internal monologue, but I felt Gutiérrez handled these transitions effectively and they never seemed jarring; going with the flow of the film and its occasional style transitions, there is much to be absorbed out of this movie. For an independent film, Gutiérrez has attracted a notable A-list cast, including Carla Gugino (she happens to by Gutiérrez's wife, and has starred in about a dozen of his films), Danny Devito, Rosario Dawson, Josh Hartnett, Robert Forster, and Zachary Quinto, whose diverse stories intertwine and pass in the night as the characters interact between ten different L.A. bars during the course of one evening. Singer/songwriter Grant Lee Phillips supplies a folk-rock based soundtrack and has a brief role as a bar singer, performing a likeably cynical song written with Gutiérrez, called "Only Bad Can Come," that fits nicely into the mixture of story lines being conveyed. The film was the first feature film to be made specifically for internet distribution, although fortunately it's made its way onto DVD for non-streaming watchability.
The Vampire in Sympathetic Repose
This is an interesting independent vampire movie that exchanges the gratuities of most modern vamp movies with a softly nuanced character-based story about a woman, staked as a newly-made vampire several centuries ago, who is accidentally awakened (via the old removal-of-the-stake-from-her-heart gag) in modern times, where she tries to find her old love while evading both police and a clerical vampire hunter seeking her demise and continuing to deal with the tragic reality that she has been made a vampire. It's a very sympathetic story (without descending into saccharine TWILIGHT territory) that proffers an appealing side to the vampire movie, exchanging thoughtful insight instead of spectacle and carnage. Filmed in St Louis with local talent, the filmmakers tried to make a PG vampire movie that would be suitable for families (that opening staking scene evidently earned them their R-rating), and focuses on character interaction while telling an interesting story largely from the vampire lady's perspective. In the lead role, actress Caitlin McIntosh, who is strikingly beautiful to the point of distraction, plays Laura with expressiveness and sympathy. The other cast members are adequate if indistinctive. The film's low budget is wisely used to its best advantage by director Wyatt Weed in his first feature-length movie; production quality is quite good with limited use of very good CGI to render some of the environments (such as flashbacks to yesteryear) and to make vampire movements ultra-fast; props must go to young makeup artist Rachel Rieckenberg who does an amazing job with limited means to create convincing and creatures, wounds, and the like. Patrick Savage and Holeg Spies (having together scored THE HUMAN CENTIPEDE (FIRST SEQUENCE) and American MANIAC prior to this) provide a serviceable score that supports the duality of the film's heroine as both innocent victim and unwilling monster.
Battle of Los Angeles (2011)
Turgid pacing defeats most of the action
This is the Asylum's knock-off imitator of the big BATTLE: L.A., and it's pretty dull. The film is muddled by poor pacing, extreme predictability, characters we don't care about, and lack of scope. Budget reasons no doubt affected the latter, resulting in a film that never really visualized the full extent of its concept; all of the action stays concentrated within a small group. Amidst that microcosm, however, the film has action aplenty, although much of it is hampered by the director's turgid pacing reaction shots hold forever and are repeated over and over at the expense of engaging editing and propulsive forward motion so that the film even at its most exciting seems to proceed at a snail's pace. Cast does okay, especially Nia Peeples as an Area-51 styled military agent whose skill with a katana sword, however incongruous in the modern military, is thrilling, and Robert Pike Daniel as a crusty old-school soldier who takes pot shots at the alien saucers with a revolver, and steals the whole show. A first-rate synth-and-samples score by Brian Ralston & Kays Al-Atrakchi gives the story what propulsion it manages to gather. As the equivalent of a "B" movie it's passable entertainment for the undemanding, but most of us are demanding coherency and creativity. BoLA's story sustains little of that.
Days of Darkness (2007)
Inept and lifeless
Inept and lifeless zombie movie. We've seen it all before and usually much much better. Cast does OK with a dumb and derivative script, but only Roshelle Pattison shines as the hero's girlfriend, providing a nicely expressive performance that makes her pain and worry very real. Style is marred by a sub-zero budget, and it shows (i.e., such as the autopsy scene where the camera keeps cutting to character reactions as they watch an alien lifeform coming out of a human victim, but the director never cuts to the lifeform itself, until we see it vaguely scurrying away). Character motivation and development is nonexistent and we never learn to care about any of the characters. This is hum-drum movie-making-by-numbers with very little appeal.
The Hunchback (1997)
Competent adaptation focuses on character play
Nicely done rendition of the classic melodrama, with Mandy Pantinkin taking a turn as Quasimodo, the bellringer of Notre Dame. Salma Hayek is marvelous as Esmeralda, with Richard Harris quite good as the wicked Monsignor Frollo, supported by a nice score by Edward Shearmur. The film stays faithful to the Victor Hugo storyline, while adding a new subtext about the new printing press' threat to the power of the Church, which adds to the story's existing political class substory and fuels the behind-the-scenes politics between Frollo and the King, within which the story of Esmeralda, Quasimodo, and the idealist Gringoire (quite competently portrayed by Edward Atterton, although both his role and that of Phoebus - a blasé Benedick Blythe - are quite abridged in this adaptation) play out. Jim Dale (reader of the Harry Potter audiobooks) is also quite notable as Clopin, King of the Thieves, whose presence throughout gives the story quite a fine dynamic. Small budget lessens the story's epic impact - and the setting resembles more of a rural farm than the center of Paris, but like most TVMs the story centers on the characters and this focus remains effective and likable. There have been many capable versions of the classic story - none of which have come close to matching the spectacle of the original silent version with Lon Chaney as Quasimodo; however this, along with the Charles Laughton version, is a worthy successor and was very nicely helmed by Peter Medak.
Lang nu bai mo (1982)
Incomprehensible and ineptly directed
Utterly incomprehensible and ineptly directed martial arts fantasy, viewed on a poorly preserved HK VCD from Ocean Shores The silly story has something to do with a battle between villagers and the local evil warlord, named The Devil, with a young girl raised by wolves who rises to confront the wicked warlord. But the film is so poorly executed that even the cheerful, entertaining silliness of 1980s era kung fu movies can redeem it. Much of this film is clearly intended as camp (the wolf girl wears a stuffed baby wolf doll on her head; the human character's retarded sidekick constantly spews words of non-wisdom) but it's not even enjoyable on that level. The storyline is sheer idiocy; the acting is awful and the English dubbing makes it even worse. The VCD contained a warning that "this article contains material which may offend" - no doubt referring to the PETA-free treatment of rabbits which appear to have been shot and/or dismembered live in a few scenes. Ling Chan's direction consists mainly of repeating quick zooms and endless recurring cuts (i.e., the wolf attack early on in the film consists of wolves running toward the camera and then dozens of shots of wolves lunging past; even the kung fu fights are obscured by incomprehensible cut-aways, repeat images, shots aimed at nothing, and badly performed reactions from the cast. The enjoyable silliness of many kung fu fantasies of the era are often wonderfully entertaining and enjoyable, but this one was just awful.