Jack Reacher (2012)
It's a clunker.
Found myself watching this turkey at a friend's place, and wished I hadn't. Cruise is insufferably smug, and wooden to boot. His body language is at odds with his role from start to finish. Quite creepy when he's lurking all over a hopelessly miscast Rosamund Pike with his eyes darting around like a trapped rat. Every character is two dimensional or less, and the set pieces are hackneyed clichés. The wrong way down a tunnel thing is getting very old after the twentieth iteration.I couldn't help wondering if Saint Thomas did his own driving stunts. I'm sure Cruise fans will see no wrong in his delivery of the Tom Cruise persona, but for non-devotees, it's all a bit shallow and desperately unbelievable..
John Dies at the End (2012)
More fun than a box of elephants.
I haven't read the book, but I've seen the film. It premiered in the UK a couple of weeks ago as part of the London Film Festival. As a fan of Coscarelli's previous works, I wasn't going to miss a late night screening of this one. I saw about a dozen new films at the festival, but only one came close to being as wonderfully insane as John Dies at the End. I'm not going to throw spoilers, but if you can, try to see this in a cinema with a big sound system. There's as many audio gags as sight gags going on all the way through, and micro hommages to a few dozen cult classics. A very knowing work of art.
As with Bubba Ho-Tep, this film takes a mindbendingly outlandish premise, which through the course of events, and some wonderfully obtuse lateral thinking, persuades the audience that it's perfectly likely to be true. The boisterous audience at the showing I attended was fired up for the absurdism by Don Coscarelli's brief (unannounced) intro from the stage, but there's so many gags in this film that he could easily have taken a back seat and shamelessly guffawed along with the paying punters. If you like old school comedy horror, with a decidedly surreal tinge, go see this film. It's refreshing, but sadly all too rare, to run across a film that doesn't take itself at all seriously, but takes the process of film-making very seriously indeed. Script, cast, design, direction, and production values are integrated seamlessly into a sublime delirium that is much more than the sum of its parts. I can't recommend it highly enough in these gloomy times.
In case you're wondering, Don Coscarelli in person is one very amusing guy, and mercifully lacking in Hollywooden airs and graces.
So bad it's awful
As noted elsewhere, the relentless "10 stars!!!" shilling is enough to make you grind your teeth flat, but when you try to watch this lamentable piece of hooey, you'll want to scoop your eyes out with a rusty spork and wash your brain with a cruise missile.. It's relentless garbage, dressed up in dreadful gimmicky post production, and looks like the kind of nonsense a no budget student could throw together in a week on After FX or Final Cut with a few overused plug-ins. There are no redeeming features at all. The acting is rank amateur, the scripting is non existent, the cinematography sucks big time, and the direction is laughably inept. Quite who these aspartame-raddled shills are who are hyping this to the heavens, well.... I'd be amazed if someone as untalented as the director actually had that many friends. PR budget bigger than the movie itself? Looks suspiciously like it.
In a contest to make the worst film possible with the limited means and imagination at their disposal, this outranks even Gymkata. And we all know how "wonderful, amazing, groundbreaking, and visceral" that was. If you can retain the will to live through the entire movie, your fortitude is to be admired. I hope the doctors bring you out of the coma soon.
Shinjuku autoroo (1994)
Made for TV Miike mayhem
The further you delve in to the Miike back catalogue, the more obvious it becomes that the guy had the art of dramatic pacing down to a tee from very early on. TV production involves fast shooting schedules and slick editing: both of which Miike excels at.
This bloody yakuza revenge flick arrived a year after the excellent Bodyguard Kiba/ Chiba remake, and a year before Black Triad Society. You can see the template being developed for that movie, and the succession of increasingly brutal yakuza movies like Agitator, Kikoku, and Deadly Outlaw Rekka in the wild intro, the disposable spaghetti style henchmen, and the close quarters kamikaze gunfights.
Inspiration isn't a crime, so the familiar elements from the early works of Fukasaku, Gosha, and Nakajima count as a big plus for me. Some action movies sag during the necessary lulls between the blam blam set pieces, but Miike easily fills those scenes with subplots that eventually implode around the finale. A finale which in this case bore a passing resemblance to both Machinegun Dragon and the awesome DOA.
Bunta Sugawara and Sonny Chiba probably inspired a whole generation of Japanese kids to make high octane action movies. A job well done in this case. If you like the straightforward bad boy rebel yakuza style, then don't hesitate to grab yourself a copy. The setup is offbeat, and it sets the tone perfectly for the duration.
Laitakaupungin valot (2006)
losing it in style
I saw this film as part of the London Film Festival and would recommend it simply on the basis that it held my interest from start to finish after a very long day at work. The only other movies I saw which managed this feat were Taxidermia and Big Bang Love, both extraordinary films in their own individualistic ways.
Kaurismaki inspires a certain hangdog cynical joi de vivre and leaves his audience to extract the humour based on their own mistakes/prejudices. So is it a great film? Not particularly, but it's a very clever piece that drags you into a vortex of depression and loneliness, and almost forgets to return to the surface. The acting is relentlessly downbeat, the script a tour de force of clumsy unspoken angst, and the whole is a beautifully tongue-in-cheek lesson in the art of 21st century minimalist expressionism. Personally, I find Kaurismaki's comedy blooming in the banal stupidity which informs the painful learning process of his clumsy but lovable characters. No assumptions of sophistication, only aspiration to a meagre level of happiness. Just like 90% of the world's population. Compassionate humanism and world-weary cynicism are constant bedfellows in the Kaurismaki canon. Who would want it any other way? Cigarette?
Marseilles la vielle
Having had the good fortune to live a portion of my life in Marseilles, I still get a frisson of nostalgia for the city every time I see the films in this trilogy. The way of life in Marseille has obviously modernised over the 7 decades since they were filmed, but the underlying generosity of spirit and joie de vivre is still there. Marseilles is to Provence and its bourgeois pretensions as London is to its satellite and suburbs: squalid, frenetic and crime-ridden, but nonetheless magnetic. The people of Marseilles still possess the same uniqueness of character that they did back then. A mixture of Italian, Corsican, Maghrebin and French, blended in a huge and historically important trading port. The largest Foreign Legion barracks was (and I believe, still is) in Marseille, ready to be unleashed on the subjects of the French African colonies at a moment's notice.
The port is still (albeit much less so) a smuggler's paradise, and the social life of the city is still centred around good food, good love, and strong drink. Pagnol and Raimu knew the city well, and gave it the starring role in the trilogy. Imagine their joy at being able to relocate a stage play to the Mediterranean coast and use genuine atmospheric exteriors of the old port in all its pre-war glory. The city, and particularly the docks, took a real beating from both sides in WW2, so Pagnol not only created a few masterpieces of cinema, but also an invaluable document of a lost architecture and layout.
The nonsense between L'Academie and Pagnol was related to the prevailing Parisian view of southerners as being crude, unsophisticated people who lived a simple life of manual labour, procreation, drinking and eating (cul terreux). The view from the south that still prevails, is one of a Paris riddled with snobbish elites (peigne cul) totally divorced from the realities of healthy living . The wonderful climate and diet of the Mediterranean coast has long been a source of envy for those condemned by fate to dwell in the damp root vegetable fogs of northern France. Pagnol was gleefully rubbing their noses in it.
Pagnol opened up a lot of avenues in film, but the people of Marseilles remember him mostly for his authentic capturing of la vie quotidienne. I'll drink to that.
Dung che sai duk (1994)
Weak film by Wong Kar Wai's standards
I watched Eagle Shooting Heroes a few months before this movie, and enjoyed every farcical HK in-joke and cliché that was shovelled into it. The cast seemed to be enjoying every minute of it, and the fight scenes were well up to HK standards. Unfortunately, Wong Kar Wai, while he is an excellent director of modern themes, completely missed the point with Ashes of Time. It tries to be a philosophical martial arts movie, but lacks the adrenal rush of even the most basic Tsui Hark Wu Xia movies. Brigitte Lin reprises a role that martial arts fans would have seen a great many times previously, and the exploding cliffs and erupting lake are by no means original. Swordsman 2 and East is Red both played the supernatural card to the hilt, with the added benefit of some fantastic fight scenes.
Much as I admire Doyle's camera-work in Fallen Angels, Chungking Express, In the Mood For Love, Away With Words, and Last Life in the Universe, I feel that martial arts action cinematography is sufficiently specialised as to be a little beyond his reach. It's not that difficult to see why the shooting schedule went out of the window, or why the cast rushed off to make Eagle Shooting Heroes during the hiatus.
The freezeframe action sequences just look weak in comparison to 99% of HK action sequences, and rather than driving the narrative, they almost drag it to a standstill. I can only assume that there was either no action director on the set, or that the person doing that job was seriously inept, and the jerky style was used to cover the weakness of the fight scenes. A shame really, because Eagle Shooting Heroes shows that the cast were very capable of performing complicated fight scenes with their eyes shut. They weren't exactly novices at the genre, and with a competent action director, they are far more convincing as fighters.
And therein lies the problem with this movie. None of the fighters are convincing, because we never really see them fight. We see some blurry slow-mo, and greyed out freezeframes, but never get a real sense of what makes them so fearsome. And because of that, the grand sentiments expressed by the leads are rendered almost meaningless.
I like some of Wong Kar Wai's films, but not all of them, and I certainly don't place him on a pedestal where criticism is not permitted. He makes great original films, but his attempts to cover well worn traditional HK genres (Heroic bloodshed in As Tears Go By, and martial arts in Ashes of Time) have resulted in his weakest movies. Action films require as many, if not more, thought processes as more artistic character-driven movies, and also demand a certain quality threshold in the action scenes, which an auteur might mistakenly assume comes naturally. It doesn't.
Shi san tai bao (1970)
Excellent Shaw Bros period piece
As mentioned in another review, the quality of the remastered Celestial DVD is truly astounding. And it's no less than a fine movie like this deserves. The Heroic Ones doesn't try to be a kung fu movie in any way shape or form. It's a brutal swords and spears epic on a grand scale, with enough carnage to satisfy even the most bloodthirsty viewer. The body count must be in the high hundreds at least.
Without wanting to give too much away, the swoop from victory through treachery to tragedy is carried off with real panache by everyone involved, with enough strategic twists and turns to hold the interest throughout. All in all, a gripping historical drama, finely shot and acted, with great stunt work and battle scenes, and well worthy of repeat viewings. I was reminded of a few classic 50s and 60s westerns, with the noble warrior(s) battling incredible odds amid breathtaking scenery and stirring soundtracks. See it if you can. On the Celestial DVD if you can feasibly manage it.
Ma lu xiao ying xiong (1973)
Hong Kong curio
I found a cheap DVD copy of this movie and wasn't really expecting too much from it, but was pleasantly surprised to discover a very watchable film. The image and sound quality and subtitles were also excellent throughout. Someone obviously thought this was worth properly remastering, and I'd have to agree.
I can't help wondering if this was a contractual filler for Golden Harvest regulars. Maybe another movie fell through, so they set this one up in a hurry and developed the script as they went along. I'm only guessing, but it certainly gets a lot sharper as it progresses, having started out as a "lovable scamps" type comedy affair with some very Boulting Bros style title animations and totally cheesy soundtrack.
The fight scenes aren't the most convincing you'll ever see, but Polly Kwan and Angelo Mao do get to kick and crunch a goodly number of snarly evil doers as the movie gets progressively more uptempo and violent. They also get hit quite hard a few times themselves. Tough babes, those 70s starlets. Added fun comes from placing the faces who take up the supporting roles and minor cameos.
It's not a kung fu classic or a lost masterpiece by any stretch of the imagination, but it's a decent little film, well acted and directed once it finds its feet and drops the slapstick. There's plenty of worse ways to pass 90 minutes on a rainy day.
Xue lian huan (1977)
Not really Jimmy Wang Yu's finest moment.
Compared to his more brutal and straightforward movies, this one only occasionally hits the heights. Wang Yu's spearwork, which is pretty central to the plot, is no more than barely adequate. His kicking and punching is up to his usual standard, but the hesitancy in the spear fights is a bit too obvious in my eyes, after exposure to Gordon Lui and Carter Wong's spear and staff work. It's not really helped by the out of sync dubbing which murders the sound effects.
A dodgy Wang Yu movie is still a few notches above the rest of the cheapo chop sockys of the era, and it's watchable enough in that context. The plot is as creaky as an ancient waterwheel, featuring lashings of cackling treachery, some evil scheming (and utterly predictable) bad guys, a wicked wily temptress, a blind heroine, and a showdown in the snow. But not much else of note. And all edited with a blunt axe, by the look of it. The much lauded rings of death would not be out of place in a Godzilla movie, so don't get your hopes too high.
Despite all that, I watched it through to the bitter end and thoroughly enjoyed the low budget camp predictability of it all. Despite the hype on the DVD cover, it's definitely not to be taken too seriously.