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Jiang shan mei ren (2008)
Crouching Empress, Hidden Doctor
An epic tragedy of Shakespearean proportions, the movie is ultimately bogged down by simplistic dialogue and an unfortunate side of cheese.
Kelly Chen is the princess of a kingdom under fire by a rival warring state. Her dad, the Emperor, is a battle-hardened field general who is mortally wounded after insisting on leading his troops in one last attack on their enemies. D'oh. Chen comes into power on the throne after the dead Emp's fave general (Donnie Yen) withdraws his right to rule and backs the chick. You don't have to be a genius to see what comes next. The other generals do not like this and refuse to support her. War within and without is brewing and the good guys are outnumbered.
So Chen toughs it out and knuckles up, right? Nope.
After a very short commitment to train as a warrior and lead her troops confidently (the people love her, despite the lack of confidence shown by the warmongers) she gets her ass kicked by a marauding party from the enemy state and ends up in an expatriate doctor's (Leon Lai) treehouse of healing. Love blossoms, right on cue. The doctor turns out to be the last of a cadre of badass swordsmen who disbanded long ago after being betrayed or the like. Donnie Yen is dismayed by all this, naturally. The rebelling generals strike and all kinds of tragic shenanigans ensue.
If this all sounds very Zhang Yimou to you, then you're in the same boat as me. Apparently director Siu-tung Chin is a big fan of House of Flying Daggers and Curse of the Golden Flower. There's nothing wrong with that, of course. That's pretty good taste. However, the cheesy love music and simplistic script doesn't help matters one bit. It's a shame because the fights and battle scenes are quite the sight to behold. It's exciting stuff only made better by the presence of the superb Donnie Yen.
This came very close to being a great films if it weren't for the pat philosophy on war and peace - separating everything into black and white. The love triangle is interesting in parts but Kelly Chen comes off as either cooing or coarse, with no in-between mode. The main thing that saves it from being another average-o-rama is Donnie Yen, the patron saint of physical destruction. Yen and his giant sword are a sight to behold in the finale and he continues to cement his place as an immortal tough guy. Too bad it was kinda sorta wasted in this kinda sorta disappointing movie. Don't let that stop you from watching it, though. It's still worth a look and very entertaining in parts.
Maybe you'll get a kick out of the hokey slow motion shots of Kelly Chen and Leon Lai falling in love set to all kinds of sappy music.
Saint Ange (2004)
Yeah, about that back room...
I love haunted house movies like some horror fans love a good slasher movie. I'm not talking about George C. Scott tooling around an empty house for some dead kid's bouncy ball. I'm talking about seriously creepy haunted house flicks where the house is possessed by stuff that would make Lovecraft rise from the grave. This film is nice to look at but it breaks the first rule of haunted house movies: it's ridiculously boring. Even after drinking a flagon of Mountain Dew, I had to struggle to keep my eyelids on the out and open mode during several stretches of this film. When I say nothing happens in this film, I really mean nothing happens at all. Some Natalie Portman lookalike babe who's hiding her pregnancy ends up at an orphanage in the 50's to work as a cleaning lady while the place undergoes renovations. Everyone vacates the premises except for the plump, matronly cooking wench and one orphan who's been there just a tad too long and does a bang-up Courtney Love impression. Apparently, the place is haunted but you wouldn't know that from watching the damn movie. A good haunted house movie doesn't rely on a few boo-jumps but more on solid atmosphere and creepy settings. I guess the director didn't get that memo. It's not awful, just extremely dull. That's a shame, because the house and the actors are there, but the story isn't. Toward the end of the film, the main character discovers what's really going on and what follows is so out of left field and jarringly gauche for the movie, I was checking to make sure I hadn't fallen asleep and accidentally started another movie while I was snoozing. If you want something playing in the background while you have a Saturday afternoon nap, go ahead and put House of Voices on. You'll probably have a boring dream about being a hot housekeeper in France.
Dòng máu anh hùng (2007)
Chuck Norris would never be able to keep up with these guys...
The Rebel is a slam-bang martial arts romp that has pretty much everything you want in a cinematic experience. Excitement, romance, escapes, betrayals and much much more all jammed into just over an hour and a half of breakneck pacing. Set in the seldom used backdrop of France's colonization of Vietnam, the film starts off almost immediately with a chaotic assassination setpiece and doesn't let up from there. The characters are believable and I held a rooting interest for them throughout the running time of the film. Some of the action is so fast-paced and so well-choreographed that you'd swear these crazy guys were fighting for realsies. If you're looking for your daily fix of action, look no further than The Rebel.
Perro come perro (2008)
Is Adela there...?
This sun-baked slice of nihilism from Colombia is a very interesting watch indeed. Although there's plenty of yelling and gun-waving, there's also a very ominous feeling about the whole show. Marlon Moreno definitely has presence as the lead, Victor, who must deal with family problems and tries to solve it by stealing money from a dead lackey belonging to his big boss, a snarlingly fun Blas Jaramillo. Holed up in a hotel room with fellow gangster Eusebio (Oscar Borda) Victor waits for the order to find and kill whoever stole the money (himself) and keeps receiving crazy phone calls from a half-mad man looking for a woman named Adela. If this all sounds like fun to you, it is. On top of all that, Eusebio may or may not be "cursed" by a dead man or just going bugnuts crazy. Yes, there's something for everyone here. The only drawback I can think of is it feels a tad too short and a few of the lead characters aren't fleshed out enough to truly care for them when the screws are really put to them. There's plenty of style, however, and you'll being humming the title theme long after it's over.
The day my brain wept...
This is the worst big-budget Hollywood sci-fi film I've seen since, well, 20th Century Fox's last big budget sci-fi film. No surprise there. Amazingly, it has nothing to do with Keanu Reeves. He has his uses (and they are few) but he gets off clean here. No, the real culprits here are Scott Derrickson's complete lack of directing ability and Jaden Smith's (son of the Fresh Prince) atrocious and rage-inducing performance. John Cleese shows up to remind us all why he is awesome and then he's gone, leaving us with the rest of this suckfest. The humans in this movie do things so insanely stupid that I was rooting for Gort and Klaatu to stomp the ever-loving crap out of these chowderheads and blow Earth to smithereens. Anyone who thinks this is good sci-fi needs a reality check and a visit from my home lobotomy kit.
Check it out, they're facing their sins. Zzzzzzz.......
I didn't even realize this was a Ted Dekker story until the end of the film, which explains a lot. He's also responsible for the "story" in the lame Seven knockoff cleverly titled "Three". He also writes Christian horror, whatever the hell that means. Michael Madsen is usually a recipe for disaster in any movie not titled Reservoir Dogs, and he screws it up here as well. Apparently Christian horror is about as effective as Christian rock. It looks like horror, kinda smells like horror, but it's not really horror. I'm not too religious myself, but being a Christian doesn't mean you have to stomach half-baked garbage like this just because it's written by someone who touts himself as a Christian writer. It's like liking those horrifyingly bad Left Behind books. Don't excuse bad writing just because the writer is a Christian. That's weak sauce. Use your head, people. There is also no reason for this to be rated R whatsoever. I can't remember any swearing and there was hardly any blood considering all the death in the film. There's an interesting concept in the flick somewhere but it gets lost in the shoddy camera-work and hit-or-miss acting that proves everyone involved is not quite ready for prime time. It gets one extra star for the awesome Bill Moseley, though he's wasted in this disappointing wanna-be horror film. Ted Dekker and Dan Brown should get together. Maybe between them they might be able to come up with a fully-functioning story. I said might...
Flay that chick and watch her pray, baby...
This is the best horror film I've seen since "Inside". Coincidentally, they're both French which proves my now long-standing point that the French have handily surpassed Hollywood and are even eclipsing Asia in making effective and shocking horror films. Frontiers, Them, Calvaire, Sheitan and everything but the ending of High Tension have all been infinitely better than most other offerings from around the world. I'd even put Irreversible in there. Can you think of one horror film made in America that truly shocked you that wasn't a remake or adaptation? The only truly great American horror film from last year was Midnight Meat Train and that was buried immediately upon release. That shows you just how much studio executives care about giving you good horror. Nowadays, Americans have a choice between the latest Saw rehash and a god awful Asian horror remake. Don't get me wrong, I love Hollywood as much as the next knucklehead, but they are clearly giving up on trumpeting original and/or daring horror films. That brings me to Martyrs. I can understand why some (probably most) people who see this film will predictably lump it in with torture porn/gorno flicks with a dismissive meh. Their entitled to their opinion (wrong as it is) nonetheless. What Martyrs does is force you to endure 90-odd minutes of sheer brutality in order to hammer home a philosophical point. Now some might scoff at that notion, but I was so knocked back by the effectiveness of this "point" that I couldn't believe that I saw what I just saw. I've heard there's a deal already in the works for an American remake. There's no way on earth that this film could ever exist in Hollywood and you owe it to yourself to see this jaw-dropping sucker punch of a shocker. If the last line of dialogue doesn't smack you right in the face, then you're not someone I'd want to hang out with...
Alright, but only if I can smash you in the face with this fish tank...
Looking for a short movie that delivers on the violence goods? 2LDK is for you, my friend. Take a highlight clip of Looney Tunes violence and mix it with an old school ECW (or FMW since it's Japanese) match and you've got the gist of this crazy little pimp slap of a movie. Two roommates hate each other something fierce, their animosity simmers for a bit, then they proceed to beat the holy hell out of each other. Needless to say, this is not a feel-good movie, but it sure is fun to watch two crazy Japanese chicks own each other. Come for the notion of being multi-cultural by watching a foreign film, stay for the brutal slapstick violence that's good for the whole family. Good times, good times...
You Take The Awesome Road, I'll Take The Badass Road...
This crazy ride disguised as a film is more like Indiana Jones than The Good, The Bad and The Ugly. There's plenty of gunfights and chases packed in the 2-hours plus running time to choke a corral of horses yet it all feels nearly perfectly paced. It's not all serious though; there's plenty of laughs to be had and they are all well-earned. All three leads are memorable and dynamic on-screen performers and who you root for could be completely different depending on who you are as a person. Ji-woon Kim is also responsible for directing the brilliant and creepy A Tale of Two Sisters and here he adds to his soon-to-be legendary filmography quite nicely. If you're looking for some excitement and just plain pure fun, make sure you check this out as soon as you have a chance.
STD: Sexually Transmitted Death...
This is how to do indie horror the right way. The story starts off unassuming enough, with just enough off about the film for you to almost not notice. What follows slowly builds and builds on itself until you realize toward the end just how insane everything has gotten without the filmmakers smashing you over the head with all kinds of cues screaming "Look! See? This is crazy, right?!" For that, I applaud Sarmiento and Harel, who turn what is essentially a coming-of-age tale into one of the most awe-inspiring examples of low-budget horror I've ever seen. The leads are great and as soon as they discover the "dead" girl in the abandoned asylum, their true characters are revealed ingeniously through their interaction with the mysterious girl (played fantastically by a real trooper in Jenny Spain). The ending is a kicker but you can see it coming from a ways away, which is fine in this case. If you get a chance to see this, regardless of how, go out of your way to do so and I guarantee it will evoke a strong reaction out of you.