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Ironclad: Battle for Blood (2014)
The original Ironclad is one of the most underrated movies of 2011, and arguably one of the more unappreciated action films of all time. The sequel--Ironclad 2: Battle for Blood--tries to replicate the formula of its predecessor but fails in almost every regard. The plot still centers around an English castle under siege, but this time the attackers are a raiding party of Scottish rebels. Desperate to hold on to his ancestral home, the lord of the manor sends his young son out to find his cousin, Guy, an accomplished but disillusioned warrior who has forsaken the ideals of his youth and turned mercenary. Guy, along with a few other malcontents apparently chosen at random--including an obnoxious executioner and the female serial killer he was about to behead--follow the nobleman's son back to the castle, and the fighting begins in earnest.
It's a shame the final product isn't a better film, because there's nothing wrong with the basic plot (not much is more fun than a medieval siege!) and the cast is actually pretty impressive. Tom Austen is well cast as Guy, and plays the part with the requisite intensity, and fans of Game of Thrones will appreciate a solid (if limited) performance from Michelle Fairley as the lady of the castle. Roxanne McKee is excruciatingly beautiful as Guy's romantic interest, Blanche, and though her sheer attractiveness guarantees an elemental level of sympathy from us male viewers, her character doesn't really have any other admirable qualities. And that gets to one of the film's major flaws: almost none of the protagonists are the least bit sympathetic, as the best of them are extremely self-centered and the worst actually psychopathic. The only truly sympathetic characters are the nobleman's son and his youngest sister, but they are really only supporting characters. There appears to be a change of heart on the part of one of the main players near the end of the film, but the narrated epilogue which wraps up the picture seems to undercut this so that any imagined character growth is apparently short-lived. Moreover, too many illogical things happen for which there is no reasonable explanation. Characters make decisions for which there is no plausible motivation whatsoever, and the plot develops rather haphazardly from beginning to end. The film is extremely violent, and the many action scenes are the movie's saving grace, and the film is never boring, but even in terms of action the film sometimes disappoints. Many of the action scenes are badly directed, and their potential impact diluted by the infamous "shaky cam" technique. Finally, the film's low budget is a real problem. The original Ironclad only had a modest budget, but the sequel must have had a fraction of that. The opposing forces are absurdly motley, and the attacking Scots never seem like a credible threat to take the castle. There are some good atmospheric shots of wild, beautiful mountain tops and dark forests, but the director never manages to make the battle scenes come alive against this backdrop.
Overall, this simply isn't a worthy follow-up to the original Ironclad. There are a few good performances and the battle scenes keep the plot moving and intermittently entertaining, but ultimately the film is undone by a low budget, an implausible script, and weak characterization. You could do worse if you are in the mood for a little medieval action, but you could do a lot better, too...particularly by merely watching the first Ironclad again.
SnakeHead Swamp (2014)
Leave this one in the swamp
Mutant snakehead fish run amok in a small Louisiana town. Not a bad template from which to craft a fun b-movie, but SNAKEHEAD SWAMP is anything but fun. The potentially entertaining plot is spoiled by sorry effects that never make the monstrous fish remotely believable, much less frightening. The director might have tried showing less of the snakeheads to build up suspense instead of throwing the silly looking monsters at us full on, but one gets the impression there was little intention to make a truly thrilling movie on any level. The script makes fun of itself at every opportunity, so much so that it goes way beyond camp and seems to actually wallow in self loathing, as though everyone involved realizes they are in a terrible movie and want you to know that yes, they know it too. The monster action is lackluster and even the explanation for what caused the outbreak of killer fish remains muddled: was it because a truck crashed into the river with unnatural cargo inside, or due to a voodoo curse, or both? The question is never really answered, and I guess the viewer isn't supposed to think about it too much. The main characters, which range from a crazy old voodoo guy who lives in the swamp to a gang of young people on a boating trip and a female park ranger, are uniformly bad and underdeveloped even by the standards of b-films. In defense of the cast, however, I think the utter hopelessness of the characters has more to do with how they are written (or not) rather than due to the talent of the actors involved, most of whom do a pretty good job with the material as it is. The same cast might have done quite well with a better script to work from, and/or a director with a better handle on things. Sometimes for all their flaws b-movies are tremendously entertaining, but SNAKEHEAD SWAMP never manages to be anything but a very slow, painful experience in dramatic futility.
The Blood Beast Terror (1968)
Worthwhile Gothic in the Hammer Mould
THE BLOOD BEAST TERROR is an entertaining Gothic chiller in the Hammer fashion, albeit lacking the production values Hammer films are often fondly remembered for. Peter Cushing carries off the role of the film's hero--a detective on the case of a series of unorthodox and bloody murders that start off in London and move out in the countryside--with his usual charisma and professionalism, and he's ably supported by a number of solid co-stars, including Robert Flemyng (well-cast as a scientist with a dangerous secret)as well as the lovely and talented Wanda Ventham and Vanessa Howard. The script drifts into the doldrums now and then,and the comic relief isn't always well-conceived, but a rich atmosphere and a measure of unpredictability carry the film through. The eponymous "Blood Beast" is scary enough if you can make the necessary suspension of disbelief often called for in science fiction and horror films. The climax is fitting, if perhaps a bit perfunctory. A better overall production than its given credit for, and certainly superior to many horror films to have been released since.
Maybe it seemed like a good idea at the time
The first problem this film has is that it simply isn't BEOWULF. It may be inspired by the classic saga of a Nordic warrior and his battles with diabolical monsters (Grendel, Grendel's mother, and a particularly wicked dragon), but it certainly isn't a faithful adaptation of that seminal poem. The script makes huge alterations in both the plot and characters, resulting in a story that has only vague similarities to its source. Grendel isn't a very formidable monster in this film, and his mother, as essayed by Angelina Jolie's CGI avatar, is transformed from a loathsome goblin to a devilish seductress. As for the CGI animation, I've seen both better and worse. The dragon comes across very well in animated form, and is actually one of the most fearsome looking fire- breathers the movies have given us, but the humans all look quite fake and even rather silly. Beowulf isn't the man he is in the original saga, either, where he is portrayed as an honorable and even God-fearing warrior of Good. In this film, he is not merely flawed, but duplicitous, and certainly no Christian (for whom he has little respect). Unfortunately, the film as a whole shows a similar disdain for the poem upon which it is based. Better film adaptations are the also unconventional but basically honorable efforts of BEOWULF AND GRENDEL starring Gerard Butler and THE 13TH WARRIOR featuring Antonio Banderas. As for this film, it is an unreserved failure, save perhaps as a parody of the great work from which it is spawned.
When a group of young tourists decide to take a detour on their way through Louisiana, they discover there's more than a legend lurking in the murky swampland. Not a bad idea as b-movies go, but CREATURE is a failure in every department of film making. The script is awful, the dialog crass and unrealistic, and the six young leads are totally unsympathetic and impossible to identify with. There isn't much action, but a few horrific set pieces are extremely gory and exceedingly unpleasant. The eponymous monster doesn't have much to do and it might have been wiser to make the villain one of the several alligators that populate the region in which the story takes place. Failing that, I imagine we're supposed to see this as some sort of homage to CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON, but this film has absolutely nothing in common with that classic. Insipid, vulgar, and insulting, CREATURE is an altogether toxic film experience.
Gritos en la noche (1962)
Underrated Gothic Chiller
If THE AWFUL DR. ORLF doesn't quite reach the first rank of classic horror films from the 1960s, it is nonetheless an eerie, thoroughly entertaining little gem that deserves a broader audience. Director Jesus Franco establishes a rich, fog-haunted atmosphere that saturates the viewer in Gothic ambiance, and the story manages to rise above the limitations of formula for all that it lovingly embraces the familiar trappings of genre. The principal characters are believable and quite well acted, notably Howard Vernon as the eponymous mad doctor (who, awful as he is, is motivated to torture and kill young women in the vain hope that he can restore youth and life to his disfigured daughter) and Conrado San Martin as the police detective determined to track him down. Also noteworthy are Ricardo Valle as Morpho, the murderous but helpless thrall of Orlof whose shambling, blind killer is both frightening and yet somehow sympathetic, and the enchanting Diana Lorys, who essays a dual role as both the detective's ballerina girlfriend and also Orlof's comatose daughter. Lorys is blessed with beauty and charisma in equal measure, and her role is in many ways the central one of the film. The movie's only notable flaw is a pace that occasionally drags, but all the same the picture maintains interest and the eventual climax is not only fitting but exciting. Overall, THE AWFUL DR. ORLOF is a small but vital triumph, well-directed with an even hand and a fine Gothic treasure of 60s cinema.
Baron Blood Review
Mario Bava is one of the most respected names in all of horror, but BARON BLOOD is a weak link in his resume'. The plot, about a ruthless Austrian nobleman brought back to a semblance of life to take up his brutal ways once again, is serviceable enough, but it never comes to fruition. There is a real dearth of action, and while there are successful moments scattered throughout BARON BLOOD Bava cannot maintain suspense or drama. To his credit, Bava emphasizes atmosphere over gore, and the violence is surprisingly restrained and delicately handled, but there are no thrills.Characters are dull and unrealistic, and Joseph Cotton fails utterly in his turn as the resurrected Baron. Elke Sommer is better as the leading lady, and she's certainly easy on the eyes, and an extended chase scene in which the Baron pursues her through the eerily lit shadows is one of the few times the film begins to realize its potential. Sadly, Bava can't keep it going, and for the most part BARON BLOOD is tepid and dreadfully slow, culminating in an unconvincing climax that is satisfying only in the sense that it brings the tedium to a close.
Stay off the Yellowbrick Road
Clearly a labor of love for the filmmakers, YELLOWBRICK ROAD is nevertheless merely an ambitious failure. No doubt inspired to some degree by the writings of H.P. Lovecraft, the film invests a great deal of time attempting to develop an atmosphere of nameless dread in the depths of the New England woodlands, but while this is somewhat successful the plot never develops. The story raises lots of questions which it never endeavors to answer, and in the end no real explanations are ever offered. Perhaps this is supposed to be the point in itself, but if so it makes for very sorry film making. Acting is fine and the camera utilizes the isolated forest scenery to great effect, but ultimately YELLOWBRICK ROAD leads nowhere, and it's not even a very enjoyable journey. Pointless, frustrating, and thoroughly disappointing, YELLOWBRICK ROAD is best avoided by all parties.
47 Ronin (2013)
Revenge of the Ronin
An outcast hero. A ruthless sorceress. A land of honor and majesty, mystery and horror. A small band of brothers-in-arms united against an overwhelming force.
Sounds like a great movie, doesn't it?
It wouldn't have taken much more for 47 Ronin to be a really great film. It has all the ingredients, from the incredibly wrought Japanese feudal landscape to a proficient cast headlined by action superstar Keanu Reeves. The script is ambitious, and tries hard to tie multiple story strands--including the demands of honor, loyalty to family, prejudice, and justice--all together in a way that doesn't detract from the basic tale of good vs evil at the core. And it all almost works just right.
There are two main drawbacks to the film, and while neither is disastrous together they too keep the movie from realizing its potential. First, Keanu Reeves's character (a foreigner who despite his devotion to this clan isn't trusted because he is different) isn't really the star. This might not be a problem if the plot were structured differently, but dividing a narrative between two nearly equal protagonists rarely works, and this is no exception. Hiroyuki Sanada, however, is essentially a co-star as Reeves's reluctant ally, and his character serves to in many ways split the storyline in two. Sanada is a good actor and his character is certainly interesting enough, but films works best with one hero. 47 Ronin really has two heroes--I suspect by accident--and the plot suffers for it.
Second, despite the film's billing as a nonstop action showcase, 47 Ronin isn't quite the thrill-ride it's supposed to be. Not that there isn't any action, of course, but it's more rare than the previews lead one to believe and often over quickly. The two flaws come together at the film's climax, with disappointing results. While Reeves battles a powerful witch for the fate of the woman he loves--easily the high point of the movie--Sanada simultaneously fights with an evil warlord in a rather poorly rendered and anti-climactic duel. The film switches back and forth between the two battles with the action further diluted by cuts to a large-scale combat going on between the overlord's army and a band of rebels. The director may have imagined this would tighten suspense. Instead, it dilutes any excitement, badly.
But while Reeves--well-cast as the enigmatic half-breed--and Sanada are the twin heroes of the film, the movie's best performance goes to Rinko Kikuchi as the Witch. Kikuchi is delightfully wicked and ruthless in the role, while never allowing the character to fall into self-mockery. It will be interesting to see if Kikuchi's performance carries her over into other work here in America.
47 Ronin has a lot going for it, and in fact is probably a little better than the other fantasy-action movie that came out at the same time, that of course being The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug. Boasting glorious sets and brilliant cinematography and some nice touches, the film just fails to achieve the epic status to which it aspires. It's probably not a movie to buy when it hits the DVD market, but for a single matinée viewing, you could do much worse.
The Legend of Hercules (2014)
Legend of Hercules Review
Hollywood turns to Greek mythology for inspiration and comes up with The Legend of Hercules, directed by Renny Harlin and starring Kellan Lutz as the eponymous demigod. As imagined by Harlin and three other credited screenwriters, Hercules is conceived by the king of the gods to deliver his people from the tyranny of the evil King Amphitryon (Scott Adkins). But though Hercules grows up with superhuman strength and skill, only his mother knows he is the son of Zeus. Ironically, Hercules doesn't believe in the gods, and considers his mother's beliefs a waste of time. He prefers to invest his time in the very earthly charms of Princess Hebe (Gaia Weiss). But when Hercules sees his beloved ordered to marry Amphitryon's eldest son, the young man rebels, earning himself an exile where the King intends for him to die and be forgotten. Can Hercules reconcile himself to the fact that he is the son of a god and fulfill the heroic destiny his mother imagined for him?
The plot isn't half bad, and even if it isn't exactly in line with Greek mythology as recorded it could still be a fine story. But while The Legend of Hercules isn't a failure, it is merely a mixed success of sorts. One of the biggest problems is Hercules himself--or rather, Kellan Lutz. Lutz isn't a good fit for the role at all. He lacks the presence required to play a demigod successfully and frankly is too feminine for a part that requires literally superhuman machismo. And while the general storyline is fine, the script suffers in detail. The dialog is often cheesy and too many plot points are awkwardly realized, as though they were not only written hurriedly but acted and directed on the fly. The script flirts with a certain gravitas near the end, but then throws an opportunity to finish with a real punch away in favor of a more conventional--but far weaker--ending that is virtually inexplicable.
On the positive side, some of the rest of the cast is excellent, especially Scott Adkins as Amphitryon. Adkins has been slowly building a formidable reputation among action performers the last several years, and he brings an on screen power to his role as the wicked but mighty King Amphitryon that Lutz simply never matches. It would have been wiser to let Adkins have the starring role as opposed to the younger, more effeminate Lutz. Likewise, Gaia Weiss virtually ignites the screen every time she enters a scene. She's not only almost painfully beautiful, but plays the part of the lovelorn princess with a rare grace and charisma.
Production values are fairly good. The ancient setting of mythical Greece is well developed, and the special effects are pretty convincing. There are a lot of violent action scenes, and while blood is kept to a minimum to stay under the PG-13 umbrella there is still plenty of graphic, bone-crunching mayhem. The final battle between Herclues and Amphitryon is quite thrilling, albeit undercut by the aforementioned belly flop that takes the easy way out.
To top it off, there is some attempt to explore religious themes in a meaningful way, including several Biblical analogies. The film actually comes across as a pro-faith vehicle and could even be interpreted as at least partly being a Christian allegory, though sometimes only clumsily so.
In the end, The Legend of Hercules is entertaining enough for fans of action, science fiction and fantasy, but it's hardly "legendary" in any real sense. It's basically a Scy-Fy Original with a bigger budget. That's fine as far as it goes, but while you may have fun watching this movie, you probably won't remember much about it a few hours later.