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5/10
Exploitation or historical document? You be the judge...
10 October 2005
Warning: Spoilers
BLACK SUN: THE NANKING MASSACRE (Hei Tai Yang: Nan Jing Da Tu Sha)

Aspect ratio: 1.85:1

Sound format: Mono

Dramatized account of events in 1937-38, when Japanese military forces overran the city of Nanking, unleashing a wave of barbarous cruelty on the defenceless population.

Though hyped by its director as a sincere depiction of China's darkest hour, BLACK SUN: THE NANKING MASSACRE will be remembered chiefly for its exploitation trimmings, such as the scene in which a sneering Japanese soldier uses his bayonet to cut a foetus from the womb of a pregnant Chinese woman. It sounds horrific, but the incident is staged with freak-show explicitness more likely to generate laughter than horror - until one remembers that such things *did* happen during this period, and much worse besides...

In narrative terms, the film offers a curious mixture of gruesome horror and earnest recreations of historical events, punctuated by lengthy scenes in which high-ranking Japanese officials argue the merits (or not) of their behavior toward 'enemy' civilians. Unlike the scenes of carnage, however, these dialogue exchanges are rendered with little or no visual flair, a stylistic conceit which serves the demand for historical accuracy whilst simultaneously blunting any possible sympathy the audience may develop for the Japanese characters. Director Mau Dui-fai - billed as 'T.F. Mous' - was previously responsible for such see-'em-and-vomit items as LOST SOULS (1980) and the notorious MEN BEHIND THE SUN (1988), and here he demonstrates an aptitude for sideshow theatrics which renders him uniquely suited to the subject at hand.

For all its sensationalism, however, the movie is distinguished by an extraordinary *lack* of melodrama. Mau depicts the worst horrors (rape, decapitation, mass shootings and burnings) with po-faced solemnity, lapsing into carnival grotesquerie only when the pace threatens to flag. Those looking for sleazy thrills will get their money's worth, but "Black Sun" straddles the gap between commercial exploitation and journalistic integrity, and takes few prisoners along the way. Performances by a largely unknown cast are uniformly fine, and production values are top-notch for such downmarket fare.

(Cantonese dialogue)
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The Bunker (2001)
3/10
Uneventful and confusing
10 October 2005
THE BUNKER

Aspect ratio: 1.85:1

Sound format: Dolby Digital Surround EX

1944: A group of German soldiers take refuge from advancing Allied forces inside a bunker on the German-Belgian border, where they're haunted by what appear to be the restless spirits of a Medieval massacre...

Debut director Rob Green aims for something less exploitative than your average low budget shocker, but he's rather handicapped by Clive Dawson's feeble script, which mistakes 'creeping dread' for 'narrative drive', and the resolution is both confusing and unsatisfactory. The funereal pace and lack of action is further amplified by Russell Currie's dissonant music score, which fails to bolster the visuals in a constructive manner. Still, some viewers will get a kick out of the creepy setting and sudden flashes of violence, and there's an excellent cast, toplined by Jack Davenport (THE TALENTED MR. RIPLEY), Jason Flemyng (LOCK, STOCK AND TWO SMOKING BARRELS) and Andrew Tiernan (EDWARD II). See also DEATHWATCH (2002), a marginally superior reworking of the same basic storyline.
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4/10
Prior knowledge of the subject is a must
9 October 2005
BEFORE NIGHT FALLS

Aspect ratio: 1.85:1

Sound format: Dolby Digital

The life and times of Cuban writer Reinaldo Arenas, whose political viewpoint and experiences as a gay man rendered him unwelcome in his home country.

Evocative study of a renowned artist whose craft was forged under duress, within a political system which defined Art and sexuality as two sides of the same 'dangerous' cultural coin. Viewers with a prior knowledge of Arenas' life and work will derive more from the episodic narrative than most casual viewers, though no one could fail to be impressed by Javier Bardem's Oscar-nominated performance in the central role. Strong supporting cast, too, including Johnny Depp in brief - but memorable - dual roles, Olivier Martinez (as Arenas' closest friend) and a virtually unrecognizable Santiago Magill (DON'T TELL ANYONE) as one of Bardem's early sexual conquests. Directed by Julian Schnabel (BASQUIAT).

(English and Spanish dialogue)
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5/10
Disappointing sequel to magnificent predecessor
9 October 2005
BATTLE ROYALE II: REQUIEM (Batoru Rowairu II: Chinkonka)

Aspect ratio: 1.85:1

Sound format: Dolby Digital

Under the new Battle Royale Act, a group of unruly juveniles is taken to a remote island and forced to engage in mortal combat with another set of teenagers who have defied the Act by engaging in militant activities.

Disappointing sequel to the magnificent BATTLE ROYALE (2000), completed by Kenta Fukasaku following the death of his father Kinji during production. The movie is no less bombastic than its predecessor, though it lacks the element of surprise and is further weakened by a meandering plot line which heads in fairly obvious directions. More controversially, Fukasaku's script (co-written with Norio Kida) launches a blistering - though indirect - attack on American foreign policy, which it blames for fomenting unrest in Arab nations, leading to the events of 11 September 2001 and subsequent terrorist attacks on international targets. This probably accounts for the film's lack of exposure in American theaters!

Teen idol Tatsuya Fujiwara makes a welcome return from the first film, playing the disillusioned leader of an uprising against 'fascist' adults and their murderous regulations, and 'Beat' Takeshi Kitano appears briefly in a minor cameo. However, the film is undermined by Riki Takeuchi as the former teacher with a grudge against Fujiwara's rebellious clan, giving a cartoonish performance as the chief villain.

(Japanese dialogue)
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4/10
Not much of a plot, but get a load of the stunts!!
8 October 2005
ARMOUR OF GOD (Long Xiong Hu Di)

Aspect ratio: 1.85:1

Sound format: Mono

Fortune-hunter Asian Hawk (Jackie Chan) travels to an ancient monastery in central Europe where his ex-girlfriend (Rosamund Kwan) is being held to ransom by a deadly cult who want Chan to deliver fragments of an all-powerful religious artefact.

Forever remembered as The Movie In Which Jackie Chan Almost Lost His Life™ (footage of the accident is even played over the closing credits, just to prove it!), this thinly-plotted action-adventure boasts a series of death-defying stunts (watch out for a truly breathtaking car chase early in the film) and brilliantly choreographed fight scenes, set against the backdrop of various far-flung European locations. Chan draws most of the limelight away from co-stars Alan Tam and Lola Forner, and the 1.85:1 image seems a little cramped in places (Chan was forced to adopt the narrower frame favored by original director Eric Tsang, who withdrew from the project following Chan's near-fatal mishap), but the movie still has much to recommend it. Dimension's rescored, re-edited US version - titled OPERATION CONDOR 2: THE ARMOR OF THE GODS (!) - should be avoided at all costs. Followed by ARMOUR OF GOD II: OPERATION CONDOR (1991).

(Cantonese dialogue)
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6/10
Widescreen thrills on a lavish budget
8 October 2005
ARMOUR OF GOD II: OPERATION CONDOR (Fei Ying Ji Hua)

Aspect ratio: 2.39:1 (Technovision)

Sound format: Mono

Asian Hawk (Jackie Chan) comes under fire from all sides whilst on a mission to retrieve Nazi treasure buried in the Sahara desert.

One of the most popular films in Chan's extensive filmography, this superior sequel to ARMOUR OF GOD (1986) is clearly patterned after the success of RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK (1981), but Chan's movie celebrates its American influences whilst remaining defiantly Asian in concept and execution. It isn't perfect, by any means: The female characters are rendered almost entirely subordinate (Carol Cheng, Eva Cobo De Garcia and Shoko Ikeda give OK performances under the circumstances), and some of the Arab stereotypes are borderline offensive (prompting protests by the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee when a re-edited version - OPERATION CONDOR - opened in US theaters), but viewers willing to overlook these conspicuous blunders will be treated to some of the most astonishing set-pieces of Chan's entire career.

In fact, the entire movie is a showcase for world-class stuntwork, photographed in glorious widescreen by veteran cinematographer Arthur Wong. Chan is clearly doubled in a number of sequences (notably a car-and-motorcycle chase during the film's opening stretch), but there's no denying his participation in the show-stopping finale, where Good and Evil engage in mortal combat within a vast underground labyrinth, culminating in a spectacular wind-tunnel sequence which took *months* to film and sent the entire movie over-schedule and way over-budget. Released in the UK as OPERATION CONDOR: ARMOUR OF GOD II.

(Cantonese dialogue)
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Unleashed (2005)
7/10
Triumphant mixture of action and drama
8 October 2005
DANNY THE DOG

(USA/UK: Unleashed)

Aspect ratio: 2.39:1

Sound formats: Dolby Digital / DTS

Raised as a fighting machine by thuggish Glasgow loan sharks, a young man (Jet Li) finds happiness after falling into the care of a kindly old piano teacher (Morgan Freeman) and his musical-protégé granddaughter (Kerry Condon). But Li's past catches up with him, threatening the safety of his newfound family...

Terrific combination of heartfelt drama and bone-crunching action scenes (choreographed by Yuen Wo-ping), anchored by strong performances (including Bob Hoskins as Li's brutal 'mentor') and a finely-tuned script by French action maestro Luc Besson. Grainy filmstock and an excess of closeups (typical of the ghastly Super 35 'widescreen' process) render it less cinematic than it ought to be, and the narrative is predictable, but the movie works on a visceral level whilst simultaneously pulling the heartstrings. Li's best non-HK film since KISS OF THE DRAGON (2001).

(English dialogue)
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5/10
Portentous thriller with empty heart
16 June 2005
THE MOTHMAN PROPHECIES

Aspect ratio: 2.39:1

Sound formats: Dolby Digital / DTS / SDDS

Following the death of his wife in a mysterious traffic accident, a successful journalist (Richard Gere) becomes drawn to the small town of Point Pleasant in West Virginia where sightings of a weird moth-like creature foretell a devastating tragedy...

Based on true events which occurred on the Ohio River in 1967, Mark Pellington's portentous drama follows Gere's big-city reporter through a series of strange events in small-town America (eg. his 'first' encounter with farmer Will Patton, his 'telephone conversation' with the Mothman, etc.). Apparently, neither Gere or Pellington were interested in making a conventional 'monster movie', opting instead for a series of bizarre plot twists and sudden shocks, linked to various glimpses of the title creature in a number of clever disguises.

Scripted by Richard Hatem (UNDER SIEGE 2) from John A. Keel's non-fiction book (an overview of the entire Mothman phenomenon to date), the film sports a welcome cameo from acting heavyweight Alan Bates as a grizzled professor whose personal encounters with the eponymous Mothman have reduced him to a shadow of his former self, though the narrative loses some of its dramatic momentum around the halfway mark, and the fiery climax barely resonates on an emotional level, perhaps because the characters are mere stick figures, subservient to the unfolding mystery. For all its drawbacks, however, THE MOTHMAN PROPHECIES - clearly inspired by the popular success of like-minded chillers THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT (1999) and THE SIXTH SENSE (1999) - is mature, intelligent, and often deeply unsettling, and both Laura Linney (TV's "Tales of the City") and Debra Messing ("Will & Grace") are excellent in crucial supporting roles. Good title, too.
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Trauma (1993)
7/10
Unheralded masterpiece
15 June 2005
TRAUMA

Aspect ratio: 2.39:1 (Technovision)

Sound format: Dolby Stereo

A TV newsroom artist (Mark Rydell) helps a distraught anorexic (Asia Argento) to investigate the death of Argento's mother (Piper Laurie) at the hands of a monstrous serial killer.

Though often cited as the film which signalled a creative downturn in Dario Argento's career, TRAUMA is actually a much better entry than its reputation suggests. The victim of spotty theatrical distribution and horrendous pan-scanned video versions - which reduce the wide Technovision frame to a mere shadow of its former self - the film is an exercise in giallo excess, culminating in one of the finest Grand Guignol set-pieces of this director's long career. Indeed, far from providing evidence of 'creative decline', TRAUMA is actually a fine addition to Argento's filmography, and is ripe for reappraisal.

Despite its American setting, the film is defiantly European in style and execution, employing ultra-wide scope framing, inventive camera-work (including a bizarre shot from the point-of-view of a butterfly!!), ornate narrative structure and eccentric characterizations. It's no wonder some of the supporting American players seem a little disconcerted by the director's unconventional approach (including Frederic Forrest as a doctor sporting an unexplained neck-brace, and James Russo as a typically hard-boiled cop, always one step behind the film's youthful protagonists)! And the script - co-written by Argento and celebrated fantasy author T.E.D. Klein - adheres faithfully to the giallo template, punctuating its convoluted storyline with several grisly murders (though not *that* grisly, considering the involvement of makeup wiz Tom Savini), and a number of compelling set-pieces: The seance which ends in murder; the mental institution where the killer disposes of an important 'clue'; the room full of billowing drapes (an authentic stroke of genius); and the climactic revelation of the killer's motive, which is so utterly horrific, it almost justifies his/her gruesome rampage. The movie ain't called TRAUMA for nothing!

At least two other versions of the film have surfaced in bootleg video form over the years, both of which plug a number of gaping editorial gaps in the official 'director's cut' (note, for instance, the abrupt introduction of Rydell and Asia at the beginning of the film), which indicates either distributor problems or a rushed post-production schedule. This may explain why Pino Donaggio's half-hearted score sounds like it was written and recorded before completion of principal photography and tailored to match the finished product, rather than the other way around. The cast is a typical Argentonian mixed bag: Asia portrays the same joyless harpy she's played in all her collaborations with Argento to date (including THE STENDHAL SYNDROME and THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA), leaving Rydell to shoulder most of the film's emotional burden as a young man who learns to accept Asia's flaws whilst simultaneously falling in love with her (few) virtues. Frankly, she doesn't deserve him! Laurie makes much of her limited screen time as Asia's domineering mother, while Brad Dourif (the "Lord of the Rings" trilogy) plays a former doctor whose guilty conscience comes back to haunt him in the worst possible way. Watch out for ex-"Falcon Crest" star Laura Johnson in a brief but creepy performance (her final scene is genuinely chilling) as an ambitious TV news anchorwoman who tries to stake her claim on Rydell in no uncertain terms.
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2/10
Even less impressive than the first...
14 June 2005
THE BROTHERHOOD 2: YOUNG WARLOCKS (2001)

(UK: Young Warlocks)

Aspect ratio: 2.39:1 (Lomoscope)

Sound format: Stereo

A group of high school outcasts are given strange powers by an influential new student (Forrest Cochran) who turns out to be a murderous demon...

Unrelated follow-up to THE BROTHERHOOD (2000) amounts to more of the same, though there's even less beefcake on display, and most of the guys aren't all that attractive anyway. The one exception is former model Sean Faris, playing an innocent pawn in Cochran's devilish plot, though director David DeCoteau takes little advantage of Faris' radiant beauty. As with the original, the narrative is weighed down by acres of mind-numbing dialogue, sparked by a studs-in-underwear finale and the "Brotherhood" series' signature episode, in which two near-naked hunks 'ravish' a hypnotized young girl, staged and photographed in a manner which suggests one guy is actually seducing the other. If the movie wasn't such a poorly-conceived tease (just like the first one), this might actually be worth a damn, but it just lies there and dies there. Followed by THE BROTHERHOOD 3: YOUNG DEMONS (2002).
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