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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.
Nude... si muore (1968)
Humdrum giallo without the giallo flavorings
Hum-drum and fairly routine murder mystery set in an all-girls school, with a mysterious killer eradicating them one by one. It is fairly stylish and keeps the gore to a minimum; as a result it works as an interesting mystery, nicely resolved, but with a few exceptions the characters are poorly and dully acted and it's not a very provocative story, and there's a bizarre coda at the end involving a sudden James Bondian character who shows up as one of the girls' dads, which obtrusive and unnecessary). Much of the film's storyline and many of its set-pieces are things we've seen before many times. It's a straightforwardly depicted murder mystery but devoid of almost any elements of the usual giallo trappings (graphic gore and unabashed nudity), as such it's kind of a "giallo light" enjoyable but without the visceral punch that the cinematic ilk has come to be known for. Perhaps the biggest drawback of the film, like many thrillers, is that the characters constantly perform completely unnaturally, speaking and acting and behaving in a manner which is completely unrealistic, unnatural, and often illogical; what they do moves the plot forward but they never really make the story, its setting, or its characters fully realistic and convincing.Michael Rennie guest stars (dubbed into Italian by somebody else) as the police investigator. English actress Sally Smith is delightful as one of the spunkier students with a knack at investigating herself; she is very energetic and expressive and lots of fun to watch; unfortunately she didn't do much after this. Eleanora Brown is also very memorable as the redhead student who becomes the primary target for the killer; she was in a couple giallos prior to this but appeared in no more films afterward. The rest of the cast, including the vastly overrated Italostar Mark Damon, are pretty much uninteresting. Antonio Margheriti's direction is solid and effective, though, and the film is well shot and nicely edited. A moderately pleasing Carlo Savina score provides an enjoyable musical backdrop, as does the rousing 007-ish main title song, "Nightmare."
Uninspired and Dreary
Tepid follow-up continues the downward spiral begun by the first sequel to an original and highly inventive and entertaining first outing. The first film was hilarious, exciting, energetic, and thrilling. KUNG-FU MAH-JONG 2 was less so, and failed to capture the same kind of verve and vitality. KUNG-FU MAH-JONG 3 is simply dismal. The attempts at humor are lackluster at best, and there's also virtually no action in the film beyond the "action" of the game, and unless you're really up on the minutiae of mah-jong (which the film's intended Hong Kong audience probably is) much of that won't make a lot of dramatic sense. The same basic cast is back and does a nice enough job (Yuen Wah has a very small and obligatory part as a fortune teller, but Yuen Qui once again plays the main character's Aunt). Roger Kwok is good as the leading man, Ken, and Shirley Yeung is charming as his leading lady, although the silliness of her having chronic "bad luck" is a bit overdrawn. Patricia Lau and Bo-yuan Chan play the, respectively, alluring and over-the-top, meanie villains this time around. The story is a fairly uninventive one about an attempt to thwart a fortune out of the Mah-Jong king, with a high-stakes game set as the determinant, with the usual kinds of nefarious deeds committed by the villain in his attempts to ensure a win. Logic isn't a member of the cast, though, and much of the storyline fails to hold up to sustained analysis (not that it's supposed to it is, in fact, a romantic comedy; but the fragility of the story's foundation nonetheless weakens its logistical structure, which severely lessens the affect of the story's development). The romance is forced, the humor isn't funny, and while there is lots of mah-jong there is no "kung-fu" anywhere in the film, unless you count "Auntie" Yuen Qui's expert coin throwing that winds up foiling the villain's various attempts to cheat. An uninspiring, dreary, and very strained sequel.
Ying zi shen bian (1971)
Entertaining Shaw Bros Era Martial Arts Fest
Entertaining martial arts film with the intoxicating Cheng Pei-Pei as a master swordfighter known for her deadly skill wielding a powerful whip. While the fights between swords and whip may seem a little far-fetched, the film wields a compelling story of vengeance and past crimes, invoking as much a mystery as an action story. Typical for Shaw Bros films, the sets are magnificent and the color photography is beautifully preserved in this pristine DVD release from Celestial, which also saves the film's original Mandarin language so we don't have to endure the embarrassingly horrible dubbing of previous American releases. The setting is snowy northern China so we have interesting scenes on horseback in the snow and ancient icycled fortresses, and Cheng is equally compelling in a white fur cap and winter outfit. The musical score, also typical of Shaw Bros films of the era, is needle-dropped from John Barry's James Bond scores, except for original opening and closing title music, attributed to Wang Fook-Ling. A very enjoyable revenge thriller/crime mystery set in ancient China with beautifully designed group fights and an interesting conception in its whip-versus-sword, despite a proclivity toward some pretty unconvincing flying/soaring through the air moments.
Bing tian xia nu (1971)
Colorful martial arts saga - if you get the original HK version
Colorful martial arts saga; director Lo Wei's last film for Shaw Bros. It begins as a standard revenge story complicated by elements of regret and forgiveness, and turns into a quest fantasy as a crippled kung-fu mistress out to get her parents murderers, only to be offered to have her injured legs cured by one of them in a healing fountain in a distant snow field. Various political disputes between the factions involved in the original murder which have to do with a rare jade sword owned by her family, and now used by the crippled girl complicate the quest. I wasn't impressed by the acting and much of the dialog seemed very unrealistic; as the film opens it features a standard plot element in early martial arts films, about a heroine disguised as a man simply by wearing men's clothing and nobody can seem to recognize that it's a girl despite obvious facial features and other feminine attributes, which always tends to destroy a story's internal logic for me. Much of the characters' behavior in the first half of the film also tended to stretch believability, but the film came around once the quest got going and the final confrontation is a wonderful, epic showdown atop the snowy mountain. As with most Shaw Bros films, the sets are gorgeous, large fight scenes beautifully staged (often from a static long shot, displaying excellent choreography as multiple fighters interact, although at the same time the long shots keep the viewer mostly at a distance), and the use of color is amazing. Released by Celestial in a beautifully restored uncut print in subtitled Mandarin (which spares us the horrible dubbing of the 1971 US release; and by the way, none of the elements complained of by the previous reviewer about a snaggle-toothed woman teaching a girl kung-fu so she can get vengeance on her father are extent in this version, and likely were enhancements made to the dubbed American print), this is a very enjoyable martial arts film that, despite some initial drawbacks, develops into an effective multi-layered story with a moving resolution.
A Compelling teen drama
Filmed in 2005 but not released until this year on DVD, this was a compelling story about rich teens acting all Hip Hop in Pacific Palisades who drive into East L.A. for kicks and getting involved with one of the gangs there, with pretty awful results. The teens are essentially brainless pleasure-seeking partiers (many critics derided them for being one-dimensional, but I think that was the whole point showing the shallowness of their lives and the bad choices they made, seeking better kicks without really understanding what they were getting into, their naivete about gangs and their misplaced self-confidence in their own sexuality to keep them popular and liked and safe, was shown to be demonstrably inappropriate. Their attitudes, weaned on parental neglect, casual sex, and playing roles they weren't up to (the kids pretend to be hip hop without ever really understanding that culture; everyone in the film is shown to be a phony pretending to be someone they're not), are mired in superficiality (one of the characters says, when facing a choice to join the gang if she'll sleep with three of their members, says, "why not? It's just sex!" a telling moment). Most IMDb reviewers panned the movie but I felt it was an honest and intriguing drama about choices and consequences. Anne Hathaway's performance is a far cry from her Disneyesque cute roles in PRINCESS DIARIES and even DEVIL WEARS PRADA she sells the character of the vapid, shallow rich kid whose attitude about life and love and sex ("it's just a performance, after all") quite nicely that's what drew me to the film, and I felt she did a good job. Freddy Rodriguez, whose performances I've always liked since he did SIX FEET UNDER, is very good as a gang member/drug dealer and despite those who claimed all the characters were on-dimensional, I felt he added a lot of subtle depth to his role humanizing it beyond the cardboard gang member he started out to be. There is a depth behind his eyes and behind his words as he confronts Hathaway and her sexy friends, and becomes as manipulated by them even while trying manipulate them for his own purposes. The other gang members were also very convincing or at least they seemed so to me. Laura San Giacomo and Michael Biehn are very good as in small roles as Anne's misunderstood but inattentive parents, who are facing their own marital issues. The film ends on an intentional note of ambiguity but one I felt was quite effective the story stops while you're still thinking about it. The specific conclusion who dies and who doesn't isn't the point and in the end doesn't really matter either way, it's the inevitable result of the poor choices and lack of any kind of personal responsibility in the lives of these kids that is the point of the film. Like THIRTEEN, I felt this was a very interesting examination of youth and its choices and influences and vulnerability. I may be eons away from the age group portrayed by the teens in this film, but I found the picture to be a satisfying and involving human drama with real performances and real issues.
American Gun (2005)
Informative and compelling drama about real life.
Another hard-hitting and thought-provoking drama. Director Aric Avelino examines guns from the perspective of four separate stories: Marcia Gay Hardin as the mother of an Oregon teenager who shot up his school, Columbine-like, and faces guilt and blame and scorn from neighbors, and worry about her other son, who is now the same age as the other brother when he performed his murderous act and suicide; an inner city school principal (excellently played by Forest Whitaker, who I was pleased to see won an Oscar last week for his role as Idi Amin in LAST KING OF Scotland) trying to stay on top of the school's anti-gun policy, with Arlen Escarpeta as an A-student carrying for his mom and family who feels he needs a gun for protection while walking to/from school; Tony Goldwyn as the cop who first arrived on scene at the Oregon school shooting and who faces community/media criticism for delayed response (again, very much based on Columbine); and Linda Cardellini who shines in a very convincing performance as a west coast girl displaced to a Virginia college who is working in her granddad's (Donald Sutherland) gun shot. All of the performances, in fact, are striking and through them the picture really has an emotional impact. The film, without comment, portrays these differing views of gun ownership, gun violence, school shootings, guilt, blame, etc., very nicely filmed and beautifully portrayed, its vignettes and its style leaving the viewer to establish their own viewpoint and opinions. The film keeps its personal viewpoint quiet, instead simply portraying a few aspects of American life impacted by the consequences of guns. Like American HISTORY X, I found this to be a provoking and stimulating drama about reality, choices, consequences, and inevitability, peopled by honest and real characters, superbly portrayed and beautifully composed.
Shakthi: The Power (2002)
Uneven but compelling drama
Uneven Bollywood drama. Karisma Kapoor is excellent as an Indian woman in Canada who marries a friend (Sanjay Kapoor), has a child, and then visits his family in India only to find they are terrorist warlords. Drama and tragedy ensue, and the film becomes a kind of NOT WITHOUT MY BABY styled thriller. Film is compelling, its few song/dance numbers are uninteresting and needless, the gaity of Bollywood song and dance is really out of character for the intensity of this film's drama, at least once we've left the comforting confines of their Canadian love nest although one number involving a cameo by the stunning Aishwarya Rai is enjoyably provocative, if ultimately misplaced as well. Likewise, the inclusion of Bollywood superstar Shahrukh Khan as a happy-go-lucky drifter who helps Kapoor in her escape from the clutches of the warlord turns what had been a very serious drama into a silly farce, and it only gets back on his feet when his character and his fantasies about Rai that generate her cameo dance are dispensed with. His throw-away comic-book dialog and the silliness of his fight scenes detract from the film's primary gripping drama. The cast is nicely supported by Nana Patekar as the warlord, and the elegant Deepti Naval who is outstanding as his long-suffering wife who finally choses to stand up against him in one of the film's best scenes; Ritu Shivpuri and Rajshree Solanki are also very good as Sanjay's sisters in India, and very pleasing eye candy. But Sanjay himself overacts terribly, especially during obvious ad-libs. The directorial style of writer/director Krishna Wamsi is sloppy, rampant with rough transitions and abrupt cuts, although his camera movement is good. The musical underscore is also quite effective, moody, featuring wordless female voice over a small orchestral ensemble (too bad little if any of that made it onto SHAKTI's soundtrack cd, but Bollywood hasn't yet discovered the value of including score along with songs on their soundtrack albums, at least not in most cases). But SHAKTI is Karisma Kapoor's film, all the way, though, and the intensity of her performance once the film switches to India contrasts nicely with the gentle romance with which she engaged with Sanjay in the initial Canadian scenes. Despite the unevenness of much of the picture, Karisma's performance completely sells the film and solidifies its otherwise inconsistent measures. In a strange way, also, I found the story to be another take on the ostentation of royalty I'd noticed in CURSE OF THE GOLDEN FLOWER and MARIE ANTOINETTE, both of which I'd seen just prior, although SHAKTI of course is an entirely different kind of film; but the focus on a dysfunctional royal family here living in the austerity of terrorism-controlled poverty in India rather than the elegance of Versailles or the massive megalomania of feudal China's Tang Dynasty whose self-serving seeking of power brings ruin upon many others and forces an uprising of one kind or another provides the film with a notable subtext.
Magnificent Shakespearean Drama
CURSE OF THE GOLDEN FLOWER (Hong Kong, 2006) Wonderfully lavish and beautifully ostentatious action-drama from Zhang Yimou, whose HERO impressed me so much, as well as his succeeding visual delight, HOUSE OF FLYING DAGGERS. This one tends to be more political drama than action, but when the action scenes do come they do so in a rush and they are incredible spectacular, especially the climactic attack on the Forbidden City, with the wide screen filled with thousands of charging soldiers in ornate battle dress. Yimou's vivid color pallet is as stunningly provocative as anything in the previous two films, and Chow-Yun Fat and Gong Li are amazing in the lead roles of the Tang Dynasty emperor and empress in a story that boils down to a simple case of a dysfunctional family taken to Shakesperean proportions. Watching this shortly after seeing MARIE ANTOINETTE was very interesting, as both films examined the overindulgent ostentation of royalty, both examined male-dominant societies (moreso in Yimou's take on the exceedingly male-dominant Tang period), and both were filled with wonder as we got glimpses of the lavishness of palace life and the intriguing lives and etiquette of the massive supporting staff. The detail with which Yimou inhabits every camera shot is amazing, and his sound pallet is as interesting as his color texture; the sounds of the Palace household are continually astounding and the massive sonic atmosphere of the battle scenes are amazing. Another massively impressive and character-/story-based spectacle with a compelling and satisfying storyline.
Mindless Entertainment and Manipulative Sexuality
Lavish, spectacular sequel to Bollywood's DHOOM action flick, which I had enjoyed. The sequel is more of the same an impossible action fest/fashion show that manages to be entertaining despite itself and its own silliness. The cast does a good job in a traditional cops vs crooks story with varying loyalties and character associations, although most of the action defies logic and practicability. The script is thoroughly moronic, with immense, gaping holes in common sense, more of a collection of over-the-top and impossible action spectacle broken by extremely sexy dance sequences involving people more beautiful than any of us will ever be, and the film makes sure to let us know that. There is virtually too much of everything too much forced sensuality for its own sake, too many impossibly glamorous people filling every close-up and crowd scene, too many slo-mo self-absorbed power walks letting each star strut their stuff, too many slo-mo windblown hair it's-all-about-me gorgeous model shots, and too many over-indulgent slo-mo takes of every show-off action scene from dozens of different angles - allowing the director to shout in our faces "hey! Look at US!' We're Beautiful! And Spectacular!" that it becomes an exploitive parody of itself; a 147-minute long commercial for sexy summer wear (the film's costume design was intended, in fact, to influence contemporary fashion in India, according to the DVD featurette). Abishek Bachchan and Uday Chopra return from the first DHOOM as police officers seeking a hi-tech international thief (Hrithik Roshan - a passable actor but mostly eye candy for the ladies). Aishwarya Rai (Roger Ebert calls her "the most beautiful actress in the world" and after seeing her in DHOOM2 I am quite inclined to agree with him with a loud cheer. To use the word "stunning" is a gross misrepresentation) and Bipasha Basu are this film's feminine eye candy, as Bachchan's informant and police partner, respectively. Rai is especially good in her role as her loyalties shift between Bachchan and Roshan; Basu plays two roles which are nicely contrasted against each other. The song and dance numbers are visually stunning, with intriguing choreography and plenty of varying costumes, sets, and over-the-top sensual spectacle. But in the final analysis, the film's all about itself, all about visual spectacle, all about manipulating its extreme and glamorous beauty for its own sake, all about crafting an illogical but masterfully beautiful roller-coaster that completes its impossible journey despite the ongoing lapses in logic and sense and any consideration of an audience's intelligence that keep on derailing it.
Chung gik yan je (2006)
Tedius Ninja - entertaining but uninvolving low-budget HK actioner
Mediocre ninja action flick from prolific low-budget action director Herman Yau (DATING DEATH, CITY COP), suffers from low budget and low ambitions, but it's entertaining all the same. Rival Ninja factions seek opposing alliances while immersed in intrigue over possession of a secret formula that will cure disease. There's some pretty good swordplay and nicely choreographed action sequences - and the girls are mighty cute - but it's all very perfunctory and devoid of a really interesting directorial style. The characterizations are nicely developed and well performed, especially a romeo&juliet love triangle between two of the opposing force ninjas.
Energetic and frequently mind-blowing excursion into manic cinema, this is a thoroughly enjoyable cross-genre science fiction tale starts out as a love story between a backwoods wannabe rock starlet Concia (Vanessa Paradis, who has a face worth staring at for decades - damn you Johnny Depp!!) and a down-on-his-luck motorcycle stunt performer James (Brit actor Jason Flemyng); but her dad (respected French actor Jean-Pierre Marielle; aka the murdered professor from DA VINCI CODE) frames him for an accident and he goes to jail; but he escapes to try and be reunited with her. Meanwhile, face-sucking aliens land and begin decimating the populace, while in James' absence a chauvinistic entrepreneur claiming to be big in the music business tries to woo Concia with promises of stardom, while all manner of strange and warped townspeople have various activities and agendas of their own. It all explodes into an immense action climax. Filmed with hyper energy, most of its low budget spent on pretty convincing CGI effects for the aliens (I mean, they even have a mechanical dog instead of a real dog!), it's a thoroughly wonderful cinematic insanity, with something astonishing, humorous, disturbing, or very appealing at every turn.
Notches up the franchise even further - A Classy Roller Coaster Ride of Horror
Mindblowingly gruesome and gory and thoroughly entertaining roller-coaster ride takes the updated atmosphere of the 2003 remake and notches it even further in a prequel that effectively delineates the origin of Leatherface and his cannibalistic family. R Lee Ermey returns as the "sheriff" we met in the 2003 remake, realistically caring for his family in his own misguided and brutal way. Especially of note in the cast is Jordana Brewster, who beyond being devastatingly beautiful, is really outstanding in the role of the major female heroine convincingly and movingly portraying the terror and the resilience of an innocent girl struggling to survive while confronted with unimaginable horrors and witnessing the brutality done to her closest friends. Probably her best moment beyond the scene where she hides under the table as Leatherface has his way with her boyfriend, is the quiet moment where she stands at the door to the Hewitt home, staring at freedom, inches away, and then reluctantly does the right thing and turns to proceed haltingly upstairs to help her friend. And as her friend, Diora Baird was also quite convincing - and a dynamite screamer. The two young male leads were effective and likable, and sympathetic in their own back story.
The effectswork is terrific yet not overdone, fitting seamlessly into the storyline to visually tell the story of the horrors committed by this family, and the film is very well supported by the music score of Steve Jablonsky, who develops the atmospheric tonality developed for the 2003 remake and crafts a musical design that maintains a constancy of dread and a rhythmic, panic-inducing pulse during the action scenes. The main theme, a horn melody intoned over a rhythmic underworking of fast-moving violins, really drives the film's excitement when it's not creating haunting tonalities during the suspenseful moments. Jablonsky's reprisal of Leatherface's theme is especially moving when he puts on the face of one of his victims, wearing the human mask (the "leather face") for the first time the score crescendos in a slow ascent of triumph, yet tinged with the horror relevant in that triumph. John Larroquette's narration at the end neatly tied into his opening monologue for the 2003 remake not to mention the original 1974 film.
As the latest take on the TCM franchise, the film, beyond being a terrific and not-for-the-squeamish horror picture, adds to the TCM mythology and illuminates the dementia behind America's most ghoulish family, although it fails to provide an truly adequate psychological explanation or rationale to the events of the family's cannibalistic origin beyond suggestion that they were a survivalist reaction to circumstances. THE BEGINNING covers the events that started the family's rural rampage of murder; real insight into what makes the family, and the character tick, wasn't really what this film was about.
Neung buak neung pen soon (2002)
Compelling Thai action film
Compelling Thai action film from Danny Pang (one of the Pang brothers noted for his work in the THE EYE); unfortunately the film is not (yet) available with English subtitles, so much of the nuances of back story and characterization are lost on viewing in the Thai language, but the basic action is simple enough to follow. Young man decides to end it all by jumping off a tall building; before he does so, he confronts a young woman doing the same thing. They talk each other out of it and decide they have nothing to lose, so they go on a major crime spree. The story becomes something of a THELMA AND LOUISE story. The most compelling thing about the film, aside from the effective directorial style, is the actress Fresh (Arisara Wongchalee) who debuts in the role as the young woman. Fresh is not only mindbogglingly gorgeous, especially in the variety of wardrobes and wigs she wears in the role, she gives a first rate performance as Gogo, the troubled young woman who goads Somchai (the young man) into his life of crime but rejects his advances. Poor lad.
Dokuritsu shôjo gurentai (2004)
Released as SAMURAI CHICKS - low budget fun
Very low-budget film from Japanese indie director Mari Asato, shot on digital video (DV), it has the crisp, unappealing look of video tape (in contract, SALVAGE was also shot on DV but with diffused filters, giving it a more filmic appearance). Never actually identified as Okinawa, the film occurs on Japan's southernmost island as especially talented dancers in a dancing school are recruited as warriors, to keep "The Kingdom" from being absorbed by Japan. The dancers have a special dance-step code that they use to communicate and, when they complete training and are deployed to Tokyo as assassins, to receive orders via a top music video diva. The film is a cute action film, competently directed if not fully professional in tonality and style. The actors who play the Samurai Chicks (which aren't samurai at all, but martial artist dancers) are all very good and appropriately cute. The fight scenes betray the actors' lack of true martial art skills, but Asato directs with gusto, and the film succeeds as an effective entertainment despite its obvious low budget.
Provocatively directed, classy action film
Splendid Bollywood action film with a contemporary, crisp, dynamic directorial style, about an elite anti-terrorist unit in Delhi seeking the thwart a terrorist who's planned a major attack in 10 days, complicated by an apparent mole in the unit. More Asian action film than Bollywood songfest, the songs are relegated to a few set pieces (dance hall, disco) and while they are quite compelling, sexy, and tuneful, emphasis remains on the action and the plot twists, both of which are high energy and extremely entertaining. There are a few turns of events that strain at logic, but for the most part this is an excellent and world-class action film, provocatively directed. It's also introduced me to Indian actress Silpa Shetty who just shines as the unit's female action member; her performance was persuasive and riveting in its action moments as well as its more subtle moments of introspection and drama. Sanjay Dutt played the leader of the unit and his performance was likewise excellent, convincing, and affecting. Abhishek Bachchan and Zayed Khan are also very good as Dutt's brothers and brothers-in-arms; their family ties lend an affecting emotional level to the storyline, as does Dutt's unspoken affection for Silpa Shetty. Suniel Shetty plays a Canadian policeman who joins up with Bachchan and Khan when they follow the terrorist to Calgary; Pankaj Kapur is mesmerizing as one of the terrorists, and Diya Mirza is competent eye candy as another Canadian operative. The music is very good in both the songs and, especially, the underscore the wordless vocal and orchestra that accompanies the film's climactic moments is extremely effective and has me racing to order the soundtrack.