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Cookie-Cutter PotBoiler Never Makes A Head Of Steam
I suppose I've always enjoyed the steamy adult thriller as much as the next bloke. Certainly, everyone knows the formula – you cast some gorgeous looking actress in the role of a sex-starved housewife, one who can't help herself but look beyond her present circumstance for a little bit of bedroom heat. As you can predict, the whole thing goes horribly wrong, and – before you know it – she's racing against her best instincts to save whatever shamble of a marriage and a family she has left. Because you really do know what you're getting at the outset, it's especially important that all of the cinematic pieces fuse together in just the right concoction, or the storyteller runs the risk of alienating the audience before the last scene unspools.
For all of its brief merits, 2016's INDISCRETION really never rises to the challenge (double entendre intended), but thankfully it's striking averageness never risks offending the audiences' sensibilities as there's not so much as a bared boob in here.
(NOTE: The following review will contain minor spoilers necessary solely for the discussion of plot and/or characters. If you're the type of reader who prefers a review entirely spoiler-free, then I'd encourage you to skip down to the last three paragraphs for my final assessment. If, however, you're accepting of a few modest hints at 'things to come,' then read on )
From the product packaging: "While her politician husband (Cary Elwes) and precocious teenage daughter are away, New Orleans psychiatrist Veronica Simon (Mira Sorvino) enjoys a weekend fling with Victor (Christopher Backus), an alluring young sculptor. But after Veronica calls off the affair, Victor refuses to let go and will stop at nothing to have Veronica for himself "
There's a bit more, but that's really all one needs to know about Indiscretion, an unrated thriller written (in part) and directed by John Stewart Muller. And – a bit to my surprise – "unrated" here doesn't mean what it does in the realm of most motion pictures as there's not nudity whatsoever, along with (ahem) sex scenes that are astonishingly uninventive and (dare I say?) routine. In fact, I'm not quite so sure why Veronica would have fallen for Victor in this context as the young man clearly has nothing to offer her by way of any legitimate relationship I suspect that may've been the appeal.
In that case, wouldn't a bit of chemistry and/or charisma have been a nice touch anyway?
Muller's feature lacks the required chemistry to make the set-up entirely believable (much less acceptable), but everyone seems to be coasting on autopilot here as the potboiler never rises to the point of boiling. So much of this 'Indiscretion' feels like a bloated TV movie – the kind you can probably find every other weekend on any regular channel, since there's no T'n'A in here – so in order to attempt to salvage the audience from this mess Muller and co-writer Laura Boersma hold back a last scene reveal until – well – the last scene. You know the kind? You can't talk about it without spoiling the ending but I'll simply leave it at this: there's far too much 'contrivance' to this entire affair for the twist to even really be plausible much less interesting.
As a production, Indiscretion has some problems with continuity: the relationship's opening sequence follows Veronica and Victor to a handful of locations, all the while Ms. Sorvino's attire kinda/sorta changing like she stopped at home to throw on a different blouse before hitting the next scene. (???) That and the fact that whoever came up with costuming for Sorvino apparently insisted on dressing her as one of the least appropriate child psychiatrists in the history of the business. Really? Those are pretty close to cocktail dresses there, and you're wearing that to meet troubled children?
Also, there's this little problem: in order to accept Veronica's situation sexually as it is at the onset, the audience is asked to suspend disbelief about whether or not fictional hubby Elwes would've found her attractive. The only glimpse at the sex life posits Sorvino coming to bed looking very much like a Victoria Secret's lingerie model and I'm expected to belief her hubby wouldn't want to be getting jiggy with this?! Sorry, but I call "shenanigans." That and the fact that Victor looks like Blake Shelton's grungy brother just made so much of this untenable.
(MILDLY) RECOMMENDED. Heck, it used to be that one could expect a steamy adult thriller to ratchet up a certain amount of heat on the silver screen, but gone are the days of The Postman Always Rings Twice (1981) and Body Heat (1981); in its place we're left with stuff like Indiscretion, a veritable 'AfterSchool Special' geared at mature viewers but giving us nothing that makes maturity requisite. Mira Sorvina is essentially wasted – as is the always watchable Cary Elwes – in this kinda/sorta popcorn flick of carelessness gone wrong or did it? You can always bank on screenwriters to wrench out some last- minute twist to try and give even the most predictable yarn a bit more thread, but this whole thing feels so second hand you'll probably find it at your local Goodwill store any day now.
Bad Hair Day
Wikipedia defines "Giallo" as a twentieth-century Italian and French storytelling genre, one specifically focused on crime, mystery, eroticism, and horror. (Think blood. And plenty of it.) One can probably search the internet for various examples of legitimate Giallo films, though I suspect you'll find some controversy surrounding the level of quality typically associated with these films. In my web-life as a movie critic, I've only had the opportunity to review a few of these, so others might be far more inclined to give something like CITY OF LUST stronger marks. I didn't dislike it; rather, I saw it as far more experimental than an actual entry into the form of art.
(NOTE: The following review will contain minor spoilers necessary solely for the discussion of plot and/or characters. If you're the type of reader who prefers a review entirely spoiler-free, then I'd encourage you to skip down to the last three paragraphs for my final assessment. If, however, you're accepting of a few modest hints at 'things to come,' then read on )
From the product packaging: "Arianna is a young woman who moves to the city to escape a traumatic family life in the suburbs. She works as a cosmetologist and is showing early signs of formaldehyde poisoning. New to the city and lonely, she reaches out to a female sex line operator. They agree to meet and soon begin a volatile relationship. An altercation at work results in Arianna losing her job. Then, people in her life begin to turn up dead. With Arianna's health, career, and new relationship all disintegrating before her eyes, how much longer can she, and those around her, survive?"
The downside to producing such an experimental-style release is that right off the bat you're practically guaranteed a relatively limited audience. (Now, hold on there, haters: this isn't to say that fans of Giallo horror are in short supply but rather to say that there aren't as many folks who'll pass up, say, TRANSFORMERS 4 in favor of spending 76 minutes with something they know nothing about.) The narrower the influence, then narrower the ticket sales; and I suspect such will be the case with CITY OF LUST.
Written and directed by newcomer David A. Holcombe, so very much of LUST feels kinda/sorta like an inside joke: you may not get all of the details, but you sure understand the punchline. Holcombe has possibly drawn on a plethora of influences as not all of these characters feel that original nor even all that contemporary (are there still sex-line operators like this in existence?). Each one is a bit more lurid than the next – some with more flamboyant personalities than they really needed – but all of them do pale when paired against the sublime young beauty of Arianna. She's the classic victim here – or is she? – who was only looking for a way out of a personal tragedy, one that's obviously about to catch up and make her life worse all over again.
Still, Holcombe packs his lean 76-minute feature with enough interesting creative choices that I had no problem staying interested if even for the mild annoyance of so many cookie-cutter secondary characters. (Seriously, if I see one more clever but catty transvestite I'm gonna puke.)
CITY OF LUST (aka YELLOW) (2013) is produced by Soft Cage Film NFP. DVD distribution is being handled by Brain Damage Films. As for the technical specifications? Well, therein lies many of the problems I experienced with the flick: the sound work isn't particularly impressive in a few sequences (though I have experienced much, much worse with films I enjoyed less), but the clever if not quirky cinematography makes up for it most of the time. Lastly – if it's special features you want – then prepare for disappointment as there aren't any; it would've been nice at the very least to get an interview with Holcombe to know what films have influenced his career.
RECOMMENDED. As I said at the onset, CITY OF LUST feels like the kind of flick that was 'inspired' by countless other works; and the danger in crafting something so stylistically dependent upon other films is that unless you've seen them you may be at a loss as a casual viewer. Still, I think most folks these days can recognize good cinematography for what it is, and, on that front, LUST offers up something that I found easy to look at for most of its 76 minutes.
In the interests of fairness, I'm pleased to disclose that the fine folks at Brain Damage Films provided me with a DVD copy of CITY OF LUST by request for the expressed purposes of completing this review; and their contribution to me in no way, shape, or form influenced my opinion of it.
A Good & Charming Looks Back At Filmdom's Most Unique Sub-Genre
As I've mentioned before, I grew up at a time when the home video revolution was taking place all across America. Mom & pop video stores were cropping up on every corner, and the latest greatest schlock was available for a mere 99 cents (if even). So very much of what hit those shelves was largely forgettable garbage – the kind of thing that looked dynamic on the packaging but once you got home you realized it was shot with one shaky camera in some abandoned warehouse in South L.A. But one of the things this revolution did was provide a wealth of talented ladies the chance to show up and scream for dear life whether they were running from monsters, aliens, or slashers. They were called 'scream queens,' and nothing in the cinema has even been like them ever since.
(NOTE: The following review will contain minor spoilers necessary solely for the discussion of plot and/or characters. If you're the type of reader who prefers a review entirely spoiler-free, then I'd encourage you to skip down to the last three paragraphs for my final assessment. If, however, you're accepting of a few modest hints at 'things to come,' then read on ...)
From the product packaging: "Invasion of the Scream Queens takes you back to a time when the term 'Scream Queen' was brand new and promised the hottest actresses in the best horror movies. Directed by cult horror icon Donald Farmer and featuring interviews with legendary Scream Queens Michelle Bauer, Brinke Stevens, Mary Woronov, Melissa Moore, Elizabeth Kaitan and more."
Of course, there's more to the product synopsis, but methinks you get the picture. If you were there and you experienced the revolution firsthand, you know exactly what it is you're about to get with this 20th anniversary release (the original production hit the marketplace in 1992). This issuance is the first time it's available for larger consumption on DVD, and, as such, it does come with a bevy of special features.
As for the movie? It's a lean, 85-minute exploration of that memorable trend in home video. To be perfectly honest, it doesn't hold up quite that well stylistically; it was no doubt shot on video, and I'm not sure if the master hasn't been preserved or so much of the hazing and graininess was a directorial choice. (Personally, I think the former and less the latter.) Still, there's something almost wholesome about a celebration of VHS schlock looking, sounding, and playing like itself is a piece of the same schlock, so maybe it's artistic.
What the picture actually does quite well is it opens a window back to the time when these ladies – who were more than willing to show some skin along the way – reigned supreme in the home video market. Through these various interviews (most of which were taped against the same production backdrop highlighting some of the more famous releases), the viewer learns about the process each of them underwent to break into the entertainment business; and there's even some interesting reflections about what they did as well as minor commentary on the nature of sex and violence in film if you're listening closely.
It's a shame it doesn't look better, but – as they say – it is what it is.
INVASION OF THE SCREAM QUEENS: 20th ANNIVERSARY SPECIAL EDITION (2014) is produced by VHS Hitfest (name changed slightly to make it Amazon.com- friendly). DVD distribution is being handled by the reliable Wild Eye Releasing. As for the technical specifications? Meh. I've pretty much covered that above, but – if you're showing up late to the game – this video hasn't quite aged as well as I would've liked. (The audio is still good, but some of the images flicker and break up.) Lastly – if it's special features you want – then you have the following to look forward to: there's a brief newly taped introduction from Director Farmer; an interview with the same; some deleted interviews; a very brief photo gallery; and an excerpt from the out-of-print "Invasion of the Scream Queens" book by Linnea Quigley.
RECOMMENDED. If you're a fan of this genre, then you're in store for some fun. If you're just discovering it, then you might not be best served with INVASION OF THE SCREAM QUEENS. I'd encourage you to watch a few of the flicks you can get your paws on first as that experience will no doubt amplify the enjoyment available for those seeking the scholarship here. A good effort, just not all that grand, nor did it hold up as well as I would've liked.
In the interests of fairness, I'm pleased to disclose that the fine folks at Wild Eye Releasing provided me with a DVD copy of INVASION OF THE SCREAM QUEENS by request for the expressed purposes of completing this review; and their contribution to me in no way, shape, or form influenced my opinion of it.
ROBOCOP Reboot Missing A Few Upgrades
In my youth, a new ROBOCOP movie is exactly the kind of release I would rush to on the first night it was available to the public-at-large. I just knew it had the kind of big-budget goodness that was best preserved in my memory by viewing it with a crowd: big laughs always mean more when shared with an audience; exciting, frenetic action sequences usually draw collective astonishment from the crowd; and who doesn't love applauding the hero when others are present and listening? Now that I'm a bit older (if not a bit more jaded or cynical), I tend to take a week or two before watching such theatrical releases, and I try to get to a showing that's fairly light on people. Why? I'd rather not risk any undue influence in order to serve up what I feel is a much more honest and more clinical valuation of the film, definitely one not inspired by what the yuckster sitting next to me thought.
I guess I'm getting' old, fans. But if I can age as nicely as the ROBOCOP franchise can, then I'm in good company.
(NOTE: The following review will contain minor spoilers necessary solely for the discussion of plot and/or characters. If you're the type of reader who prefers a review entirely spoiler-free, then I'd encourage you to skip down to the last two paragraphs for my final assessment. If, however, you're accepting of a few modest hints at 'things to come,' then read on )
In the city of Detroit circa 2028 (seriously? Detroit is still around after its financial collapse?), police detective Alex Murphy (played with conviction by Joel Kinnaman) uncovers a criminal conspiracy that looks to implicate some high-ranking officers on his squad. At the same time, the multinational, war-mongering conglomerate OmniCorp is seeking the right candidate to put inside one of their latest creations – an urban combat suit – in order to expand their domestic sales and corner the market on profits. When those in Detroit decide Murphy needs to go, billionaire businessman Raymond Sellars (a greedy Michael Keaton) seizes the opportunity to put a part-man, part-robot police officer on the streets. But what happens when the former cop turned machine decides to investigate his own attempted murder?
Where the original ROBOCOP (1987) was smart, smart, and smart, this new version is dumb, dumb, anddumb. It comes compliments of director Jose Padilha, relatively still fresh from acclaim rightful earned from his ELITE SQUAD 2: THE ENEMY WITHIN (which, incidentally, is a vastly better film than this is). 1987's script – penned by Edward Neumeier and Michael Miner – was crafted almost with a winking acknowledgement to the audience: don't take any of this any more seriously as you need to, and you're likely to have great fun with it. The violence was gory and (I'll admit it) gloriously gratuitous because that kind of visual flair lent itself nicely to their intended message. Structurally, it had similarities to the great American Western – a lone gunman seeks to clean up a corrupt town – though there were some obvious swipes at capitalism, the ultimate 'bad guy' in anything churned out by Hollyweird in the past half century.
While still being vastly superior to the ROBOCOP sequels that followed in the footsteps of the original, this 2014 reboot suffers largely from the singular distinction of being completely unnecessary. It echoes back most of the major points of the original – OmniCorp's suits are still the villains, though with vastly bloated emphasis on corporate villainy, while Murphy's family (Abbie Cornish as Clara Murphy, along with young John Paul Ruttan as son David) get real screen time in order to ground the film in stronger 'humanity.' However, gone is that constantly winking eye; in its place is some forced histrionics dished out by everyone's favorite foul-mouthed screamer Samuel Jackson as some futuristic Fox News wannabe talking head who rarely makes logical arguments. (He does get a great laugh, though, by casting the U.S. Senate as "pro-crime.") I'm guessing filmmakers thought they were aping Bill O'Reilly, but Jackson comes off more like watered down and occasionally cocaine-fueled Stephen Colbert.
Also, the first ROBOCOP distinguished itself with clever moments of newsroom satire, peppering the screen with visually exciting news stories and interviews that helped lampoon the crime-ridden world of tomorrow. Unfortunately, scripter Joshua Zetumer's story never quite figured out how to contemporize that aspect; instead, Zetumer begins throwing things at the wall hoping something might strike the same cord with audiences. At one point, he even crafts a narrator describing the action taking place on the screen (a device that goes on for far too long and desperately needed a better sound mix than the one provided if producers wanted it to be understood); instead of complementing the film, it ends up creating probably one of the most alarming 'WTF?' moments in recent film memory.
The new ROBOCOP isn't a failure. Rather, I see it as a reboot missing more than a few upgrades.
RECOMMENDED. Like most critics, I suspect the overwhelming question – "Was ROBOCOP really in need of such a flavorless reboot?" – truly kept me from enjoying this version as a legitimate sci-fi offering when director Jose Padilha served up only a competent, CGI-laden action film, one largely intended for our video-game-friendly culture. Performances work only so far as they're needed for a video game (doting wife, loyal partner, crooked cop, corporate sleaze, etc.), and the real weakness here was a deeply flawed script that could've quite figure out what it wanted to be when it grew up.
Concrete Blondes (2013)
Disappointing BLONDES Never Figured Out What It Wanted To Be
Screwball comedies have been around for decades. There are many good ones, and, it stands to reason, that there are as many (if not more) bad ones. I'm not particular fond of them; I don't dislike them, but I do think they're certainly hard to pull off with a winning script. And when you don't have a winning script? Well, then you spin it like you do, and that's largely what you get with something that's as banal and predictable as CONCRETE BLONDES – it isn't a total failure, but it probably won't win many converts to the careers of the involved talent.
That's a shame, too, because it could have. Perhaps if it hadn't been in the hands of such an inexperienced writer AND director – one who may've seen the other's weaknesses in time to salvage this. I think everyone – audience included – deserved better.
(NOTE: The following review will contain minor spoilers necessary solely for the discussion of plot and/or characters. If you're the kind of reader who prefers a review entirely spoiler-free, then I'd encourage you to skip down to the last three paragraphs for my final assessment. If, however, you're accepting of a few modest hints at 'things to come,' then read on )
Daytime accountant Kris Connifer (played by Carly Pope) can't quite catch a break. At work, she's struggling with clients who can't pay for her services in cash, while at home she's torn between the antics of her live-in-gal-pal Tara (the always lovely Samaire Armstrong) and their sexy roommate Sammi (Diora Baird). But when Tara and Sammi stumble across a drug deal gone bad, they find themselves in possession of a suitcase with over three million dollars. Could it actually be the answers to all of their money woes, or will it drive the girls to do unspeakable things all in the pursuit of untold riches?
What hampers CONCRETE BLONDES the most is that fact that it never establishes a quality tone from the get-go. The opening scenes play like a bit of farce, and not much later – once the three ladies are thrown together – it vacillates between drama and downright screwball lunacy. Then – in the final act – it goes full bore farce once more before eventually succumbing to an almost dystopia-lite urban crime thriller. Simply put, BLONDES wanted to be more than it was ever capable of being, and that's logically the fault of writer/director Nicholas Kalikow. Instead of trying to embrace all elements of perhaps the films he most likes and/or respects, he should've dialed back all of the influences, kept it simple, and then gone for broke.
Of course, putting all of the blame on Kalikow's shoulders would dismiss the relatively inadequate performances he manages to eek out of these players. In particular, Armstrong is the only one I think far more capable of giving more than she did here (I've seen her in a handful of projects, so I trust she did the best she felt possible with the material); and veteran character actor John Rhys-Davies served as little more than a functional 'heavy' for the purposes of the mildly convoluted plot. As for Pope and Baird? Meh. Thankfully, all of the ladies are easy on the eyes, so much so that a tighter edit or a more tightly delivered tale would've given this a greater chance to find an audience.
Unless I miss my guess here, BLONDES is exactly the kind of film most regular folks want to like, especially when it comes to crime capers. You've got good-looking ladies – each with a different version of the classic heart of gold – who've all been wrong by that big, mean world outside. You want them to get their acts together. You want them to succeed, even if that means taking it on the lam and heading south of the border where no one will ever find them and their suitcase of stolen cash. Had it all started and stopped there, then I suspect this one would've had a greater chance to win hearts and minds. Unfortunately, that isn't the case, and we're all left – like the girls – wishing for something most will never have.
It's a disappointment, but it's not awful. Just a disappointment.
CONCRETE BLONDES (2012) is produced by CB Films North and Sacred Bull Media. DVD distribution is being handled through Inception Media Group. As for the technical specifications, this indie-style feature boasts the same quality sight and sound you'd find associated to practically any other indie-style feature. As is often the case when these smaller films find eventual release, there are no special features to speak of, save for the theatrical trailer: I'm not sure much is lost by having nothing extra, as there was little here of any great substance.
MODESTLY RECOMMENDED as more than a 'curiosity' than anything else. CONCRETE BLONDES isn't a bad attempt at trying to do something a bit avant-garde with storytelling: it has an interesting criss-crossing and out-of-chronological-order narrative, and it tries to mix a contemporary twist on screwball comedies with the gritty crime caper kinda/sorta like Quentin Tarantino likes. Sadly, it doesn't do either all that successfully – performances aren't quite manic enough when they need to be, nor are they 'screwball' enough when it's required of the players – and it's all edited together with an almost 'who cares?' motif. Sadly, it could've been a tight little gem if someone had paid closer attention to what makes these uniquely twisted films work instead of going for the workmanship grade. Better luck with a remake.
In the interests of fairness, I'm pleased to disclose that the fine folks at Inception Media Group provided me with an advance DVD copy of CONCRETE BLONDES by request for the expressed purposes of completing this review.
Delightful Yet Dark Family Comedy
It isn't as if there is any blight of good films involving the transition from adolescence into young adulthood in the marketplace; but, for my tastes, I find it refreshing as of late to find so many of them coming from the foreign markets. Well, for too long the American teenage experience – I'm not putting it down, as I lived through my very own – has dominated the films about this awkward time in everyone's life; if nothing else, I find it reassuring to know that our foreign brother and sisters struggle with much of the same emotional highs and lows because it unites us culturally. It brings us closer together. It once more reminds us that we share more in common than we truly differ from one another, and having that seminal 'common ground' from which to begin any dialogue is refreshing.
THE DEFLOWERING OF EVA VAN END amps it up another notch. While presenting the struggles of the young, it also explores those of the young-at-heart – the parents, who all too often get overlooked in their development with the family because (let's face it) their challenges tend to be less inviting, less inspiring, and decidedly less glamorous.
Veit (played with cleverly nuanced awareness and equal detachment by a sparkly Rafael Gariesen) is a German foreign exchange student who comes to live with a Dutch family, all for the purpose of learning better English. Eva (Vivian Dierickx in a breakout performance) is the young girl who serves as his sponsor, and she's immediately smitten with his charms, looks, and attitude. Much to her confusion, Veit manages to equally affect the various members of her family, accidentally forcing them to tear down the barriers of their ordered existence only to find something much different hiding beneath.
As the title suggests, his DEFLOWERING is all about transition. Yet rather than be an individual experience this one ends up being far more orgiastic in nature. Everyone is affected by Veit, even those truly not vying for his attention. The boys at school want to be just like him, and the girls can't take their eyes of him. Back at home, father Evert (Ton Kas) recognizes there are souls beyond the homefront who might be needing whatever he can give while mother Etty (a frumpily luminous Jacqueline Blom) discovers a deficiency in her ability to find personal peace. As for the brothers? Erwin (Tomer Pawlicki) suddenly uncovers a repressed homosexuality, and Manuel (Abe Dijkman) finds himself obsessed with attaining 'trophies' from all his exploits, carnal or otherwise.
Anne Barnhoorn's smart script uses Veit as a mirror: he's held up over each of these various characters, and only under his influence can each of them see what they're missing – a father without a child to raise, a mother struggling with identity, and so on and so forth. Eva's shortcomings, however, end up getting scant attention texturally – in spite of having her name in the title! – but that's largely because her struggle is the easiest identified, even from the outset. In early scenes, she's shown sitting at the dinner table; life is going on all around her – mom, dad, and the boys are carrying a variety of mixed conversations with one another; and yet no one gives her a second look or listens to what she says. At school, she can only draw the attention of the equally outcast members of pubescent society. She slumps her shoulders; she wears t-shirts adorned with curiously obtuse designs; and she doesn't even try to fit in any longer. Director Ten Horn stages it all brilliantly, and he captures it with some dazzling camera trickery that'll no doubt inspire those who marvel in all the details. And, also as the title promises, she gets her deflowering.
What does it get her?
Her changes aren't nearly as drastic as those of her family, and perhaps that's precisely the message implied through all of this. Everyone is transformed in some way, big or small, by Veit's powers over them. Eva's afforded a universe of personal knowledge – symbolized by the glow-in-the-dark ceiling star that lands on her forehead the moment her German suitor climaxes – while the rest of her blood relations are left to sort through the open baggage of their psychological comeuppances good or bad. For the most part, they're good, but when you hear Manuel – now properly named 'Emanual' – promise that things will go back to normal once Veit is gone, you'll know like I did that the order of things has changed.
HIGHLY RECOMMENDED. Much like anyone's first deflowering, THE DEFLOWERING OF EVA VAN END ain't perfect, but it's still a delightfully dark and wryly comic mix of what happens when the socially imperfect collide head on with the socially perfect. The performances are terrific – in particular, Vivian Dierickx captures the general cluelessness and cultural awkwardness of being still trapped with a young mind in a body starting to change (from impulses as well as family or peer pressures) – and the script, while lacking in depth, makes up for it in a myriad of smaller moments that gives balance to one of the smartest ensembles I've seen in quite some time. Be warned: it has a psychologically dark moment that might disturb some viewers (involving a member of the Animal Kingdom), but once the shock wears off it'll all make more sense.
In the interests of fairness, I'm pleased to disclose that the fine folks at Film Movement provided me with a DVD copy of THE DEFLOWERING OF EVA VAN END by request for the expressed purposes of completing this review.
Vaudeville Humor Makes A Comeback ... Just in Bloody Time for the Holidays!
Despite what some might have you believe, comedy is a fairly personal experience. I've said it before: what one person finds funny isn't necessarily what another person finds funny. As a result, it's an increasingly difficult narrative to tap
that is unless you're willing to go backward in time to go with what's been tried and true for years. Shtick. Some folks will call it slapstick. Others will call it bloated wordplay or puns. Whatever it is, it works, and that's what's at the heart of CAESAR & OTTO'S DEADLY XMAS. Yes, some of its bloody. Sure, some of it's a bit gruesome. But it's all done in the spirit of "getting a laugh." On that front, the film works just fine.
(NOTE: The following review will contain minor spoilers necessary solely for the discussion of plot and characters. If you're the type of reader who prefers a review entirely spoiler-free, then I'd encourage you to skip down to the last three paragraphs for my final assessment. If, however, you're accepting of a few modest hints at 'things to come,' then read on )
From the slipcase: "Caesar and his half-brother Otto take on duties at Xmas Enterprises as Santa and his elf. However, the bodies begin to pile up when a fellow store Santa (CKY's Deron Miller) develops a vendetta against them, and he soon turns Caesar's list of cancelled Thanksgiving Dinner guests into a list of Xmas-inspired victims! A cross between Scary Movie and Silent Night Deadly Night, C&O's Deadly Xmas takes the Christmas slasher into all new gruesome and hilarious territory."
There's really no reason to spend all that much time dissecting DEADLY XMAS. This is cinema shtick meant for folks who enjoy cinema shtick. While I'll be the first to admit it may not be what I find all that funny, I certainly would never begrudge anyone who enjoys it. There's plenty in here to smile about; and, if it's laughs you're looking for, then I've no doubt you'll find 'em. Much of it is fairly traditional vaudeville style humor – some of the jokes you can see coming a mile away not because of the script predictability, per se, but because it's a natural part and parcel of characters like this. Odds are, if you've fond antics funny before, then you'll find them funny again.
The characters of Caesar & Otto are the creation of Dave Campfield and Joe Randazzo. Campfield is one of the film's stars (Caesar himself), so there's no one who knows his misadventures better.
And don't miss scream queen Linnea Quigley in a clever bit for laughs just in time for the holidays!
CAESAR & OTTO'S DEADLY XMAS (2012) is produced by Wild Eye Releasing and Fourth Horizon Cinema. DVD distribution is being handled by MVD Visual, A Division of MVD Entertainment Group. As for the technical specifications? Well, this is an independent feature, so it looks and sounds about as well as the next indie feature you'll likely see today – audio was a bit muffled at times, probably due to production restraints, but it wasn't all that distracting. As for special features? Dave Campfield and his band of lunatics have ponied up a veritable bonanza for fans: there are three separate commentary tracks; a behind-the- scenes documentary; some alternate scenes; and three (count 'em!) short films that'll likely bring you equal laughs and smiles. Seriously, it's a nice collection, clearly put together by folks who love what they do.
RECOMMENDED. Look, if slapstick is your thing, then you're likely to love CAESAR & OTTO'S DEADLY XMAS. If you even just like fairly broad comic shtick, then you'll probably like it. To be honest, it just isn't my thing – never has been. I tend to like humor a bit different than the average THREE STOOGES' short, but I don't begrudge anyone his or her particular chuckles. Writer/director/star Dave Campfield has a particular eye and ear for this particular comedy, and it probably plays well to most in the audiences; his script is always smart – though perhaps a bit predictable – but, as indie fare goes, there's nothing wrong with it. Turn off your brain and enjoy the holidays, folks even if it's a bit bloodier than the one you had last year!
In the interests of fairness, I'm pleased to disclose that the fine folks at MVD Visual provided me with a DVD copy of CAESAR & OTTO'S DEADLY XMAS by request for the expressed purposes of completing this review.
Smart Talk on Skin: Mostly Skin-Lite OLYMPIA Secretly Indicts The Lifestyle It Celebrates
One of the problems some films experience in this day and age is they're increasingly incorrectly marketed. Take a film like OLYMPIA for example. If you read any online synopsis of the film – especially the ones provided by either the production company or its marketing team – then you're liable to be given one impression of the film. "Young girl." "A real hot-tie." "Wants to be a porn star." "Wants to be a celebrity." "Nudity." "Exploitation." "Rock music." You can throw in any number of other related words, and you catch my drift. You – as a potential viewer – are given the impression that you're about to see something that's going to involve a lovely young lady running around in her skivvies (or less) who can't wait to do the nasty on camera for her and her male suitors delight.
But the truth especially in the case of OLYMPIA is far from the reality, and I can't help but wonder how many folks came into this one expecting something vastly different than what was delivered.
Here's the skinny from the product packaging: "After a string of amateur videos, Olympia, now 18 years old, enters the colorful world of sex, rock and fashion for her major porn debut in this hyper-saturated pop treatment of the superficial glitz and glamor of the Argentinian adult film universe."
So let's clear this up right away: despite the promise of the premise, boys and girls, there's very little nudity (other than incidental) in OLYMPIA. That's because if you think that's what this picture is about then you're sadly mistaken. This is about the industry. It's about a lifestyle. It's about a generation who live (and die) by Twitter, Facebook, and the pursuit of celebrity. It's about plastic people running from one failed coupling to the next – all at the speed of light – chasing after a dream that, ultimately, won't make them a better person but maybe – just maybe – might give her (or him) a fleeting, momentary satisfaction.
Despite looking pretty, much of it ain't pretty at all!
As a director, employing such obvious camera trickery to tell a story is a huge gamble. As a calculated risk, you play the odds that employing split-screens and floating tag-lines and other forms of virtual Greek chorus won't distract your audience from the story unless that's your intent. Could it be that your story isn't the point of the film? Is it that your message – your specific visual interpretation – of the story is what you want viewers to remember instead of the characters' various plights? Such techniques end up largely feeling like Cliff Notes pointing you in the direction the storyteller wants instead of organically taking to that destination by way of the tale being spun, and, despite how hard it tries, I thought director Leo Damario's intrusion into the tale pulled me away from Olympia's journey all too often. Half of the time, it worked – the chicanery underscored the falsehoods, tearing back the curtain of glamor surrounding the adult entertainment industry – but, when it didn't, I felt like I was watching some film scholar's senior thesis about how to get as many images into an 80 minute picture as humanly possible.
But – and this is very important – Damario's talent with the camera throughout much of OLYMPIA was the way he captured so much of it as such a 'commoners' sideshow. I've no doubt that the adult entertainment industry is just that – a sideshow – and this story works best when it's focused (or just slightly out-of-focus) on the nuances of our lead actress's existence. (i.e. Olympia dances at a rave; Olympia's chatting on her cellphone; Olympia's getting a check-up, etc.) Damario proves – in a none-too-subtle way – who the true 'voyeurs' are (hint: it's all of us) and who are only out to make money on it. It almost feels like I was watching a story culled together from a bunch of macabre home videos instead of a typical motion picture story.
Also, I'd be remiss if I didn't point out that Damario and scribe Karina Noriega's script is, at times, scathingly funny (again, in a non- obtrusive way) as it goes about exploiting (my word, probably not theirs) the stunningly mundane way even celebrities live their lives – sitting on a couch waiting for meetings, accidentally eavesdropping on the banal conversations of others. Some moments are blithely profound while others are packed to the hilt with delightful quirkiness. Had the quality of the entire film matched the wit of the script, OLYMPIA probably would've tapped into a wider audience. As it is, it feels too much like an inside joke that you think you understand when the reality of it all possibly escape you.
RECOMMENDED. The sad truth of why a film like OLYMPIA may never find an audience is the fact that (A) it's artsy and (B) it kinda secretly (and satirically) indicts everything about 'the artsy.' Stars don't take well to being made fun of; nor do those who traffic in their footsteps. As a consequence, folks who can appreciate the sarcasm and "get the joke" are, instead, renting TRANSFORMERS 4 because there's nothing else in at the video store. Take a chance on OLYMPIA, and you might be surprised that is IF you can get past its 'artsy' constructs.
Smart Talk on Skin: Girls Just Wanna Have Fun
Girls! Girls! Girls! Where, indeed, would the world of the adult film be without the lovely girls! Well, one might even push the envelope a bit further and ask where would the world of work be without the same girls, girls, girls. In 1980, Hollywood even tapped into the zeitgeist of the corporate world when 20th Century Fox released its hit comedy, NINE TO FIVE, which explored the personal and professional exploits of women in the workplace
as well as the men who exploited them. Two years later, the premise of the film was turned into a hit TV show. And the adult film industry has always loved to honor a successful mainstream film with a porn-fueled alternative, so what's not to love about a film titled HORNY WORKING GIRL: FROM 5 TO 9?
(NOTE: The following review will contain minor spoilers necessary solely for the discussion of plot and characters. If you're the kind of reader who prefers a review entirely spoiler-free, then I'd encourage you to skip down to the last three paragraphs for my final assessment. If, however, you're accepting of a few modest hints at 'things to come,' then read on )
Chieko Kuwano (played by the lovely Junko Asahina) is an up-and-coming office assistant manager to a corporate office in Japan. She allows herself to be seduced by her new corporate boss in order to get ahead. However, once she's on-the-job for him, he loses interest in favor of his young, nubile administrative assistant Mari, which only brings the man more ire from his already unsatisfied wife, Mayumi. What are three women to do? Why, they'll band together and turn the tables on the man if that means they can finally achieve their sexual revenge!
Without a doubt, HORNY WORKING GIRL: FROM 5 TO 9 intended to cash in on the whole NINE TO FIVE fad established by 20th Century Fox, and there's absolutely nothing wrong with that. The script by Shigeko Sato shamelessly borrows ideas and characters from the established film, and then he upends them into a comedy of manners for the workplace. One could make a solid argument that most of the comedic elements still work even today as the trend for having powerful women in charge has only continued to grow since the early '80's.
5 TO 9 opens with an infectious disco theme that serves to successful 'date' the film. It practically informs today's audience that they're being magically transported to another time and another place for the purposes of this workday fable. And not even five minutes in, the viewers are treated to their first sexual encounter or so they're led to believe! Life, after all, is all about experimentation, and that's what takes place throughout the film: everyone experiments with everyone else (or even the machines) for the purposes of sexual gratification or the fulfillment of fantasy.
There are plenty of ideas explored here. Kuwano experiments with an 'electric cream' that's supposed to enhance her libido, and it goes into high gear in the most inopportune moment. There's a brief schoolgirl fetish sequence (about the 16 min. mark) with a foreigner who needs to be watched in order to achieve intimacy. There's an obligatory shower scene (25 min. mark), and even a prescient "put 'em on the glass" moment (32 min. mark) and much, much more crammed into the film's lean, mean 66 minutes.
It's worth mentioning that there's an event in there that could serve to produce some controversy because of the way it's handled creatively: Mari gets cornered in the corporate bathroom after hours by three surly men on the cleaning crew, and – as you might guess – they take turns having their way with the young woman. However (and, no, I'm not justifying this, I'm only seeking to clarify it) the audience is soon to learn that she enjoyed it much more than she let on during that sequence, which is broken up by a similar escapade taking place in the boss's office. It's all about fulfillment – not necessarily trying to make a social statement – as this is all intended to be 'humorous.'
Much like what happens to set the final events in motion in NINE TO FIVE, the same goes down in 5 TO 9. The women – seeking a kind of contemporary solidarity – band together first for solace, then for eroticism, and finally for all out retaliation against the man who's inflicted so much personal pain (and pleasure) in their lives. Don't fret too much along the way, and you'll find everyone gets a happy ending and I guess that was a pun intended.
HORNY WORKING GIRL: FROM 5 TO 9 is produced by Miyo Akiyama and directed by Katsuhiko Fujii. DVD distribution (stateside) is being handled through Impulse Pictures under their Nikkatsu Erotic Films Collection. For those needing it spelled out perfectly, this is a Japanese spoken language release with English subtitles (no English dubbing available). As for the technical specifications, the picture looks and sounds very solid, especially given the fact that this is over thirty years old and has probably been sitting in a vault since then. As is often the case, this release is slim on extras: there's only the original theatrical trailer and some liner notes (a brief essay) from Japanese film scholar Jasper Sharp.
RECOMMENDED. Broad comedy works in sex and/or sex-related storytelling whereas undiluted farce tends to discourage audience members, and HORNY WORKING GIRL: FROM 5 TO 9's winning formula of parodying the ideas of the Hollywood comedy 9 TO 5 (starring Jane Fonda, Lily Tomlin, and Dolly Parton) proves a success here. There are some moments played a bit too zany for my tastes, but, all-in-all, this one was clearly intended for good clean fun mostly (even a three-time bathroom sexual assault gets brushed over by the victim's childish smile of delight once she's discovered).
Onna kyôshi-gari (1982)
The Gloriously Depraved But Decidedly Unconventional FEMALE TEACHER HUNTING
There's much more afoot here than what get more commonly delivered in the average Pinky/Pinku film (which this is and is not). With an almost macabre 'After-School Special' quality, FEMALE TEACHER HUNTING tries to be about more than the act of sex and/or the glorification of rape (a staple of many similar Japanese films, especially those under the 'Female Teacher' label). One of the characters remarks, by their nature, "guppies make the best of bad situations," and that's not a sentiment normally explored when the pursuit of skin is paramount. Likewise, HUNTING frankly tries to say something about human nature – not just commenting separately on the roles for the male and female of the species – and it comes in the delivery of a smart script that tries to give some psychological underpinnings to the actions of its various players.
(NOTE: The following review will contain minor spoilers necessary for the discussion of plot and characters. If you're the kind of reader who prefers a review entirely spoiler-free, then I'd encourage you to skip down to the last two paragraphs for my final assessment. If, however, you're accepting of few modest hints at 'things to come,' then read on )
HUNTING packs an awful lot of narrative into its slim, trim 65 minutes and still manages to deliver up the steamy scenes, some that are conventional lovemaking and others that flit and flirt with sexual assault, so much so that it becomes impossible to decipher what it might all mean. Director Junichi Suzuki directs a script from Hiroshi Saito that layers on the heavy insinuation that what's really being exploited here are social role models (i.e. teachers as authority figures; students as hungry for learning and direction; rape case workers as doing what's upright and honorable; etc.). What becomes increasingly clear is that the lines between consent versus dissent have grown increasingly blurred in a society prone to 'hunting' for real meaning – who am I, what do I want, and how do I go about getting it.
For example, Midori's merry telephone prankster, Tanaka, has his own fetishistic hang-ups (fantasies) which cause him to start and spread the rumors about her being raped, and these essentially spring from his own inability to engage his classmate in a real-world relationship. When forced to come to terms with them, he unsuccessfully sexually assaults Midori, but their conflict is far from over as we'll eventually see him coaxed toward better results in a scene ripe with allegory (as well as one staged and shot with crisp, near-romantic angles by cinematographer Yonezo Maeda).
But perhaps an even better example involves Miss Sakatani. As the gallant teacher, she's intent upon putting Kuriyama's world in order, appealing to him in the picture's opening to not drop out of school because of what he insists are rumors of his assault on Midori. She wants the system to give the boy a chance to be found innocent. Later in the film – when she realizes he indeed may be – she seeks him out, hoping to make things right. What ends up happening is the young man rapes her – a startling development – but one not nearly as surprising as her reaction afterward when it appears she's pleased with herself! Away from her, Kuriyama vomits, coming to grips with what he's become; away from him, Sakatani smiles, content that she's finally made him into what she was led to believe he was.
I hope I haven't spoiled too much of the story here, but, as is often the case when folks explore Pinku films, it isn't so much for the plot as it is the skin. My only desire in discussing this further – much more than I usually do – is to point out that there was far more being explored here than in the traditional skin flick; and – in whatever small way – that underscored why I'm occasionally drawn to these films. Too easily, they get dismissed as little more than pornography meant to instill whatever crass value system might be at work in an industry exploiting women for the sum of their body parts; but every now and then one comes along that challenges those biases – almost thumbs its nose at those assumptions – and, as implied by the title HUNTING, the cast and crew were trying something a bit different here. That deserves to be pointed out. As is your right, you don't have to agree with the message; as is my right, I'm only challenging others to appreciate the effort.
HIGHLY RECOMMENDED. If you understand the metaphor, then think of FEMALE TEACHER HUNTING as the Merchant Ivory of Pinky porn, with a script so layered and a climax so royally screwed up that Sigmeund Freud probably would've soiled himself trying to decipher the conflicting and conflicted messages. Still, if your taste is anything from the Nikkatsu Erotic Films Collection, this one will definitely give you something to think about as its chocked full of talent who can actually act, a script that tries to give erudite subtext to the sexuality it explores, and probably the worst 'stepmother' figure in the history of film or the greatest, depending upon your predilections.
In the interest of fairness, I'm pleased to disclose that the fine folks at Impulse Pictures provided me with an advance DVD copy of FEMALE TEACHER HUNTING by request for the expressed purposes of completing this review.
301, 302 (1995)
A Meal Not Quite Fit For a King
A thin but attractive writer has suddenly gone missing and the only suspect appears to be her comely neighbor in Cheol-su Park's "301/302." The central fascination of "301/302" deals with two decidedly different women one an extrovert, one an introvert whose lives have been corrupted by food: the chef (Apt. 301) based most of her husband's affections and later her own inadequacies of providing exceptional meals while the anorexic writer (Apt. 302) can't shed the memories of her sexually abusive father who worked as a butcher and refuses to eat as a consequence. Now divorced, 301 meets 302 and transfers her love to her new neighbor, trying against all odds to get the thin, pale woman to eat her meals.
The film has several plot inconsistencies that are never cleared up. 302 appears to have virtually no contact with anyone except for the occasional telephone call from a mysterious editor/writer/friend, but yet the very morning after her disappearance the police have gone looking for her. An unnamed building resident last witnessed 302 going into 301's apartment, but the hallways are always empty and void of other people. Then, in the film's final moments, it becomes clear that 301 has adopted some of 302's physical appearance, cutting her hair to match that of the thin writer; given her desire to eat and eat and eat, why would she suddenly choose to adopt the looks of one who abhorred eating? However, in the broader recipe, these points aren't significant. What matters most is the relationship these two women have with one another and their past lives. Their respective histories are told in effective if not alarming flashbacks, and, despite their differences, it becomes thematically clear why they would be inevitably drawn to one another in the unique environment created by the filmmaker. The viewer can see the conclusion coming, but, like preparing a good meal, it's really more about eating than it is the cooking.
It's an odd relationship, but if not predictably these two women are destined to be together. Only 301 can fix 302's problems with a solution that isn't exactly a five-star dessert.
Joshû 701-gô: Sasori (1972)
Antihero of the (S)exploitation Film
Uttering as few words as possible, Nami Matsushima (played by the stunningly beautiful Meiko Kaji) dispenses with the pleasantries and builds a reasonably impressive body count by the end of "Female Prisoner 701: Scorpion," one of the premiere films in the women's prison genre of films.
Natsuyagi is a cop looking to move ahead in his life, and money, after all, is the root of all evil. He hatches a scheme to use his lovely girlfriend, Nami, to lure the local mafia bosses into a scheme. But when the gang feels something's amiss, they escort Nami into a back room and rape her. Breaking in, Natsuyagi realizes he finally has what he wants: ignoring his fallen girlfriend, he convinces the mob that he can make all of their problems go away if they pay him off. They agree, and Natsuyagi has Nami thrown into prison where she undergoes the obligatory beatings, teasing, and other forms of degradation so common to 'girls behind bars' films.
What makes "Scorpion" different is the fact that Director Shunya Ito in his debut film decided to ride the fine line between art and trash. He combines the best elements of the vindictive woman's feature along with artsy lighting in order to achieve the effect of a car crash: the viewer really hates to slow down and watch, but there really must be something to see here, right? The violence is gratuitous, if not psychedelic, at times, but it all manages to flesh out (pun intended) before Nami manages to finally break out of prison and go on her murderous rampage, taking out the mobsters one-by-one until her final showdown with the unsuspecting Natsuyagi.
Also, in Kaji's graceful hands, Nami isn't so much a victim as she is an antihero, not at all unlike Clint Eastwood in Sergio Leone's spaghetti westerns. The viewer is pulled into this world by means of a very beautiful woman who refuses to be a 'prisoner' to the genre. Instead, she's defiant and calculating at every turn, refusing to comply with the warden's demands of good behavior. She challenges every authority, instituting her own code of justice which applies to everyone: her fellow inmates, the prison guards, and even the police outside. Uncompromising in her dedication, she ignores the acts she endures for the sake of focusing on one sole objective: revenge.
and that's an act she takes with complete seriousness.
Kyûtî Hanî (2004)
Anime Gone Wild!
I've always had a bit of a love/hate relationship with anime. Quick flashes of artwork reconciled within the plot lines of the larger work have always felt more intrusive than they have integral to the total story, but, as could any reader, there's always something in there worth appreciating. Whether it's the personal history of the lovable lead or the angry clutter of a villain bent on destroying life, some element always gels, fueling the vicarious excitement for as long as I'm willing to suspend disbelief.
Then again when the lead actress is an absolute knockout having the time of her life chewing scenery, slaying bad guys, and decked in spandex, who am I really kidding? The live-action (the term should be used loosely, as the film is full of heavy CGI sequences) adaptation of "Cutie Honey" feels like an idea that originated from anime but desperately desired to rise above the conventions of the literature. In this story, Honey an ordinary office girl turned super-powerful android by magical uber-genius of her deceased scientist/father is granted the chance of, well, her second lifetime: she can avenge dear ole dad's death by bringing an end to the notorious Panther Claw gang but is she willing to risk the lives of her new-found friend, Detective Natsuko Aki (Mikako Ichikawa), in the process? Of course, androids have never been lovelier than this one embodied by Eriko Sato. As Honey, Eriko bears the weight of the film, delivering a performance of a visual marvel: her features strike an almost perfect balance between doe-eyed-anime-schoolgirl-cuteness and drop-dead-gorgeous-comic-book-heroine-beauty. She's perfectly cast, and it would appear that she knows it! She uses her feminine wiles and impish lunacy from start to finish with nothing short of total commitment. Such dedication should give even the most impotent Scrooge something to admire, if not a resurrection of male blood flow. Yes she's just that stunning. In her capable hands, what could have been a farce becomes a force to be reckoned with.
"Cutie Honey" is not without its flaws. The high-fashion, sparkly camp design works well most of the time, coupled with some terrific special effects work. Anime sequences largely used for flashbacks and battlefield filler are impressive, but these scenes don't offer much to differentiate themselves from straight anime pictures. Despite or to the advantage of the goofy feel-good banter, the actors all seem to enjoy themselves, as it's clear that no one is taking this stuff too seriously.
At some points, I couldn't suppress the "What am I watching?" effect. Normally, a film like "Cutie Honey" is not my cup of tea but, one scene later, I was drawn up into this goofy world once more, laughing at the campy villains or admiring what little fabric the costume designer refused to waste on Eriko's ordinary-girl-alter-ego outfits.
Did I mention that Cutie is a real cutie? In the end, there's something wholesomely redeeming to watch a group of mismatched heroes take time out from saving the world to drink sake, let loose, and sing karaoke.
Muddled Mess of Teenage Sex
"Samaria" tries to be a tightly woven drama about truth and consequences of youth dabbling in the business of behaving as adults, but instead the film comes off as little more than a jarring mess of mixed messages.
Trying to save money for a trip to Europe, two young lesbians, Jae-yeong and Yeo-jin, concoct a grand scheme: Jae-yeong begins the world's oldest profession, sleeping with much older men for cash while Yeo-jin stands guard outside watching for police. However, when Jae-young jumps from a hotel window to avoid being caught by the police, she dies from her wounds, and Yeo-jin, feeling responsible, decides to take over the bedroom duties and give these men their money back. The situation quickly goes from bad to worse when her father -- a police detective -- uncovers what she's doing and then starts extracting his own revenge on the men.
The film is uneven, and it never gives a clear motivation for Yeo-jin's desire to put things right in her little corner of the world. Even worse, the film never explains her father's choice to completely abandon her in the story's final act after he's committed so many crimes.
The film does approach the taboo subject of adults sleeping with children (teenage girls). While the story gave the filmmaker ample opportunity to make further comments about this real-world problem that fuels a significant portion of the global sex trade (older men choosing to sleep with younger and younger women), this topic seems to be conveniently sidestepped in favor of producing a dirty 'Afterschool Special' sans nudity. The adult themes, instead, focus on the father's actions, and, as a result, the film never entirely recovers from the level of confusion it generates.
While I'd argue that the film deserves a low rating for quality, "Samaria" is probably the kind of film that would mean more to persons who've dealt with this topic -- inappropriate sexual indiscretion -- far more personally. Also, the film could be viewed as a conversation piece about the nature of youth and the teen's interest in growing up (thru sex) much faster than society intends. Outside of those facts, I couldn't recommend it.
Arahan jangpung daejakjeon (2004)
Good Brain Candy!
There's an awful lot to like in "Arahan," but, then again, there's always something to like in any film that features a bumbling misfit saving the world.
Sang-hwan is a young police officer, and he's not a very good one. Bespectacled and nervous, he's not exactly welcomed with open arms at work. He bumbles his way into one mess and out of another, all despite his good intentions, and he ends up causing himself (and others) more harm than good. When several old masters guarding the key to enlightenment identify a strong ch'i in him that if properly nourished and trained could save mankind from a newly awakened evil, Sang-hwan decides to believe in himself and accept his new role as a guardian of society but not without bumbling headfirst into the responsibility.
"Arahan" opens with a pace and tone that feels far more dark than the script ever delivers, and moments of whimsy aren't as funny as was quite possibly intended. In fact, Sang-hwan's beating at the hands of a street gang is downright violent, completely void of any humor. Thankfully, the uneven pacing of the first half gives way to some welcome surprises in the second, complete with a spectacular showdown to save mankind with frenetic swordfights, great humor, and some spectacular wire-fu.
If anything, "Arahan" takes itself a bit too seriously again in the closing moments of the fisticuffs when too many fight sequences are photographed in brain-friendly slow motion (gee, doesn't this all look pretty and significant?). But that's a small complaint for a film that delivers some impressive action sequences, some inspired special effects, and more than a dozen good belly laughs.
Cheongpung myeongwol (2003)
More 'Martial,' Less 'Art'
When I was young, I'd get up early every Saturday morning not to watch cartoons but to turn on the local channel for what was called 'Kung Fu Theatre.' It wasn't as if these films were works of art. It wasn't as if these films all came from China, Japan, Korea, or any country in particular; if the story had to do with fighting be it swordplay or fisticuffs and if the fighting didn't resemble much of anything going on in any American gym class, then that was good enough. It wasn't as if they were really even very good. They were just great action flicks with incredibly over-dramatic music where the hero reaped his vengeance over a whole host of bad guys, and then the credits would roll.
"Sword in the Moon" is much like these films of my youth, arguably a bit of a thematic throwback given a welcome twist by muddying the characters up enough that it becomes increasingly difficult to tell the bad guys from the good.
Yun (Cho Jae Hyun) is known throughout the kingdom as 'the human butcher.' He kills quickly and mercilessly on behalf of the Chun Dynasty, the chief bodyguard of an Emperor who spared his life and the life of his men in exchange for his service. However, an equally merciless rebel and his lovely sidekick appear in the countryside and start murdering imperial ministers, and Yun agrees to find these rebels and kill them. His task becomes one of personal discovery when he learns that the two rebels are Choi (a friend from his past) and his former love, Shi Yeong.
Sadly, "Sword" doesn't have much to distinguish itself from other action films. Some stunning cinematography is nearly entirely wasted on shoddy editing with portions of the film put together so loosely its hard to believe that what inevitably made it to the film was what anyone intended. While the atmosphere and story tend to gravitate toward a dark mood, the tone is almost sacrificed to the never-ending parade of flashbacks as each of the main characters is given a healthy story arc. What should've been a quick and easy action film gets weighed down by far too much personal baggage, and the film suffers as a result.
I've read that this film marks Korea's first real foray into the world of art-house action pieces along the likes of "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon." Next time, I'd strongly suggest that the producers stick with a little more 'martial' and a little less 'art.'
Dream Warrior (2003)
No Dream, No Warrior
Throughout the late 1950's and early 1960's, motion picture studios capitalized on the popularity of film by churning out hundreds of B movies. Most of these are forgettable, but, every so often, a picture managed to capture the imagination of an audience and, consequently, turned a tidy profit. As digital film-making technology in the 21st century continues to become available to the booming population, any cinemaphile armed with a camcorder believes he's the next Spielberg, Scorsese, or could it be George Lucas. The resulting explosion of horror, thriller, or low-grade science fiction titles available at your corner Blockbuster Video continues to grow. In an era of modern film-making when any Tom, Dick, or Harry possesses affordable technology to make a motion picture, it only stands to reason that there will eventually be more folks making motion pictures than those who should truly be allowed to make motion pictures, and rarely has there been better evidence than that of the direct-to-DVD schlock, "Dream Warrior, " also known as "A Man Called Rage." Rage (played by an unshaven Daniel Goddard) is no ordinary man. Though he's blessed with 'Men's Health' spokesmodel good looks, he's little more than a mutant with superhuman abilities
abilities that start and stop with the gift of grunting and flexing and throwing a grenade on cue. That, and he packs a mean air pistol. He's on the run from Parish (played by ever-reliable and, apparently, always affordable Lance Henricksen), the future's 'man of God' who wants to wipe the impure mutants like Rage off the face of the planet
if he could just find then all hiding outside his single building. But when Rage is rescued by a beautiful mutant (the lovely Sherilyn Fenn of 'Twin Peaks' fame), he throws caution to the wind in favor of saving Parish's infant son from the evil leader's nefarious plan
which never quite gets fully explained.
Made in a derelict warehouse with wooded exteriors shot a stone's throw away, "Dream Warrior" presents the story of an uninteresting apocalyptic tomorrow not unlike the world seen in the 'Mad Max' films only with much less desert: shabbily-dressed survivors normal in every sense of the word save their psychic abilities to hurl lightning, heal the injured, and sense water (woohoo!) if they're not dressing 'Goth' and watching men fight to the death on top of a truck bed march through the woods in search of 'The River,' a place of legend where mankind's last hope for survival can be realized. Of course with a plot this thin you know it's only a matter of time before all of these characters are thrown together. Blacksploitation legend Isaac Hayes even makes an appearance as a shadowy religious loner sent to explain it all to the mutants because they apparently don't have enough sense to figure it out for themselves.
At best, the film is a guilty pleasure. At worst, the film takes pleasure at being just plain guilty. "Dream Warrior" boasts no real dreams nor any real warriors, and it takes just over 91 minutes for Rage to discover that he's Parish's firstborn, to help kill his maniacal father, and to march off into the woods intent on saving the world. From what? We're never told.
Written and directed by Zachary Weintraub, "Warrior" proves definitively that there is one too many Weintraub's working in the film industry.
Stolen Heart (1998)
Everyone has a secret, and Writer/Director Terry O'Brien fleshes out that single truth to great effect in the wicked little thriller, "North of Fargo." Josephine, Avery, and Creed are small-time criminals. They steer clear of the big city because they don't want to get caught by more-experienced police. They operate in small towns on the border between New York and Canada so that they can escape whichever country whenever necessary. They're so good-hearted that they won't even load their weapons with bullets for the impending kidnapping they've planned out of fear of hurting someone. However, human error compounds their latest scam Creed nearly kidnaps the wrong girl and this single mishap grants a Good Samaritan enough time to really muck things up: while tussling with Josephine from behind, a farmhand accidentally sets off her gun which was loaded and she's nicked by a single shot. In the confusion, she sneaks away, abandoning Avery and Creed to fend for themselves.
However, what appears to be a routine kidnapping now turns to something far more complex: Josephine was actually extracting revenge on her estranged husband, the very man who took her own infant daughter thirteen years before! This single twist powers enough turns successfully that "North of Fargo" feels less like an independent film few folks saw and more like a privileged 'Lifetime' movie of the week. Robert Buchanan the local philanthropist can't go to the police about his missing daughter without risking the discovery of his own past, taking his daughter from her mother many years ago. Angry over being left behind, would-be kidnappers Avery and Creed join can't extort the ransom money from Buchanan without getting their revenge on the unsuspecting Josephine. Josephine, played winningly by Lisa Ryder from TV's 'Andromeda,' can't figure out how to win her teenage daughter's love without divulging the secrets of her own dark past.
And, if that wasn't enough to handle, it turns out that the teenage girl is pregnant! "North of Fargo" maps out the same territory so wonderfully and vividly explored by Joel and Ethan Coen ("Blood Simple," "Fargo"), Hollywood outsiders who've built a cottage industry out of exploring borderline simpletons in chaos of their own making. Basing their stories on real incidents, the Coens have developed an artistic knack for fleshing out characters who take on a life of their own despite the lack of self-awareness, despite behaving calculatedly mundane, and despite the obvious human fallibility. Through the Coens' masterful manipulation, these folks become less and less Tinseltown creations and more credible: think of what would happen if Jimmy Stewart was dropped into the JFK's motorcade through Dallas, and you get the picture.
Like the cast of characters from the Coens' films, O'Brien's Josephine and Avery and Creed are simple folk, which is not to say that they are dumb by any stretch of the imagination. Rather, they're human, and this humanity is the edge that drives them to do what they do. On the street the day before the crime, Josephine sees a young mother abusing her small daughter. Rather than stand aside and let this small-town atrocity happen, she marches up and slaps the woman across the face, delivering the kind of message any of us would hope for the courage to pull off should the opportunity present itself. Thanks to O'Brien's tight script, he manages to keep these criminals grounded in reality. They're nervous before committing a crime. They're uptight while they're committing the crime. They're slightly out-of-sorts after committing the crime. They act on their impulses both right and wrong without dwelling in Shakespearean fashion over the long-term consequences of such actions. In their world, what happens happens. What they do about it, they do about it. As a result, their human errors inevitably turn to human evils not out of poisoned minds but merely by the circumstances of the choices they've made. They may have their secrets, but there isn't anything dark and sinister lurking in those closets; rather, this evil is founded on intimate moments that lead ordinary folks to extraordinary deeds.
As the film's original title ("Stolen Heart") was changed for the video and DVD release, there isn't any doubt that O'Brien and the folks behind distributing "North of Fargo" sought to benefit from the association with the Coens. That isn't such a bad mood, as this film clearly bounces back and forth between serious and comic tones much the way any Coen films has, and any reasonable person could see "North of Fargo" as a companion piece to "Fargo" with its locations, its moods, and its exploration of any family's various evils.
This entertaining little flick has enjoyed a lavish life in the critic's circle. Reportedly shot on a budget of $100,000, "North of Fargo" managed to win 'Best Feature' at the Valleyfest International Film Festival; 'Best Feature,' 'Best Canadian Feature Film,' and was named a finalist for the Hollywood Discovery Awards at the Victoria International Film Festival. It's a compact gem, and it deserves to be discovered by a wider audience.
Zhou Yu de huo che (2002)
ZHOU YU'S TRAIN is the type of film that may require repeat viewing in order for the casual viewer to take in all the thia story has to offer: if you blink -- much like the effect of the quickly passing scenery out the window of any train -- you might miss a plot line, a character moment, or a perspective that would better be explored, as the climax to this evenly and perhaps-too-leisurely-paced romance shows.
Zhou Yu (the lovely Gong Li) plays a young painter who falls in love with a shy poet, Chen Ching (played by Tony Leung Ka-Fai). Twice a week, Zhou Yu rides the train to be with him. On the train, however, a humorous veterinarian (played Sun Honglei) sees, approaches, and flirts with her. While she initially resists his desire, she eventually gives in to an indescribable curiosity which forces all of them to examine their various roles in one another's lives.
While one could hardly argue with the notion that there are parts of TRAIN that appear uneven and, at least, forced, the film still manages to deliver a perspective worth a single view: who does Zhou Yu love and why? Torn between these two men for wildly conflicting reasons, she can't make sense of her dilemma. Instead of running from one of them, she inevitably chooses aspects of both for her affection, but this choice only forces her further and further into confusion.
As a result, TRAIN explores more than one budding relationship, making the film as uneven as it is unpredictable. In fact, one could make the argument that what truly is transpiring here cannot be fully understood and appreciated until the film's final few moments .. but even then the viewer is left with many unanswered questions. Is that the message of the film, that life brings more questions than answers? Or is it merely a comment on how Zhou Yu chose to live her life? Or is it something even more?
Regardless, what is clear is Zhou's desire to seek the answers to questions of the various loves in her life (two men, friendship, art, etc.), and the narrative clearly appears to be a device through which an exploration of the female mind and heart is undertaken. Whether you reach a destination is left entirely up to the viewer.
Of course, the best scenery is Gong Li. She plays even utter confusion with beautiful conviction. If you're a fan of her work, then TRAIN is definitely for you.
Taegukgi hwinalrimyeo (2004)
A 'Brotherhood' For The Ages
Nations do not fight wars. Citizens fight them, and these citizens are honorable men and women who serve their country willingly or, as history shows, by decree of a desperate government.
As a result, patriotism has become the unlikeliest casualty. Once welcomed in the trenches of battle, patriotism has lost its limbs, fought back from life support, and suffered shell shock. Once easily recognized, patriotism has become a bit of a chimera, an ideal more easily attached to definable characteristics than it is any single soldier. However, in the bitter end, patriotism is defined by the actions of these individuals who serve; it is rewarded by the nations who sponsor this service; and, more often than not, it is measured in hardships endured.
Such is the complex, ever-changing battleground of writer/director Kang Je-Gyu's 'Taegukgi: The Brotherhood of War.'
In 1950's Seoul, Jin-Seok (Won Bin) and his older brother Jin-Tae (Jang Dong-gun) are enjoying a strong family life of perfect happiness. Suddenly, they find their lives turned upside down as soldiers of the South Korean government seize them all men aged 18 to 30 are taken and they are forced to take up arms despite their lack of training against the approaching North Koreans. On one brutal battlefield after another, the bonds of family are put to increasingly demanding tests as Jin-Tae originally driven by his responsibility to protect his younger brother continues to further exhaust his physical and emotional prowess despite the protests of Jin-Seok. He learns that he is a good soldier, one with a talent for inspiring others as well as an unanticipated thirst for killing the enemy. Eventually, these two brothers once bound by a love for family find themselves at odds within this new brotherhood of war, and the pressures to prove one another continue to exact heavier and heavier tolls as the war escalates. As circumstances evolve, the brothers inevitably find themselves on opposite sides of a losing conflict but can either find a path to redemption or reconciliation that can save both of them?
There are many elements of 'Taegukgi' that elevate the film from the status of standard war film to a message of hope set against the backdrop of war. The film's scope is grand, dealing with the far more intimate themes of family, brotherhood, and personal responsibility when Director Kang Je-Gyu could have easily opted for banging the drum of nationalism. At its core, 'Taegukgi' is the story of two brothers, a strikingly poignant analogy for the entire North Korea / South Korea dilemma. While the battlefield choreography is as frenetic as it is harrowing, it never takes the film's center: this picture is founded on relationships the human perspective to the world outside and it never falters. Instead of focusing on history, Kang Je-Gyu crafts every scene to highlight the thoughts, actions, and emotions of the participants of history, and, for that, 'Taegukgi' deserves countless accolades.
Much like exploring the heart of darkness as depicted in American classics as Francis Ford Coppola's 'Apocalypse Now' and Oliver Stone's 'Platoon,' Kang Je-Gyu forces Jin-tae to explore his own budding evil, and this journey is not without its own relative scars. Once a man has crossed over and embraced wartime madness, can he ever truly find a way out? Arguably, if 'Taegukgi' suffers from any setback, it is that perhaps Jin-tae goes too far for an audience to accept his madness: believing his brother to have been killed by North Koreans, Jin-tae turns traitor once he is captured and seeks to wipe out every soldier serving South Korea. While the story offers the motivation for so drastic a change, it's hard to believe that the man who once fought so valiantly against the spread of Communism would suddenly choose to embrace it.
Still, it's a small diversion but it's necessary to bring the aspect of brotherhood full circle, to have these two unique men face their darkest hour, and to make one final statement on the role that family inevitably plays in every man's life.
Recently, thanks to the worldwide success of 'Taegukgi' and 1999's blockbuster 'Shiri,' Director Kang Je-Gyu has signed an agreement with Hollywood's own powerhouse, CAA, to produce his next film in America. Only time will tell whether or not this agreement will afford some of the 'Korean sensibility' to American films, but certainly having one of South Korea's premier directors breaking into the Hollywood film system is a tremendous advantage for fans of international film.
Only the passage of time will earn 'Taegukgi' its rightful spot alongside the other great films dealing with the consequences of war.
All That Glitters ...
All that glitters is not gold ...
CASSHERN is the kind of film that you really want to like, despite some tremendous inadequacies in the plot, pacing, script, etc. A tremendous breakthrough from Japanese cinema, CASSHERN offers everything that any die hard film fan could cherish: a multi-layer, action-intensive plot backed by top-notch visuals that, in many cases, defy definition as well as expectations. The film looks like a million bucks ... but, sadly, that's all it does.
While CASSHERN promises to deliver some huge bucks in premise, it only manages to muster strength in the first half, giving way to a second half weighed down by the conventions of taking a relatively mainstream concept -- good versus evil -- and pigeonholing an all-too-predictable message of the art-house set in the conclusion.
Hint: if your point can be made in a few sentences, then what's the purpose of a 140 minute film?
However, CASSHERN is the kind of film that's easy to relish in its strengths: the visuals are, pardon the pun, to die for; the hero is well worth the worship; and the effects push the envelope when compared to anything else put out by Japan previously so far as I'm concerned. It's good bad that all that glitters isn't gold; if it were, CASSHERN would've been the mother lode.
The Tesseract (2003)
Oxide Pang -- one-half the Pang Brothers -- directs THE TESSERACT, a stylish, hyper-kinetic tale of good folks gone bad -- kinda/sorta -- in this kinda/sorta good-to-great film thriller.
By utilizing flashbacks, flashforwards, and ... erm ... flash-sidles (if there can be such a thing), Oxide Pangs crafts his film together more as an experiment in narrative voice, but he pretty much confides in this technique for the involved set-up of these four disparate folks: a drug dealer trying to score a big delivery; a comely psychologist trying to come to terms with the death of her young son; a professional assassin (can you ever have just one?!?!); and a thirteen-year-old thief who misunderstands the concepts of right and wrong. These four folks all converge on a hotel where their lives criss and cross as dramatically staged flybys and near-misses ... but, come the conclusion of the film, they collide with devastating results.
In a style very reminiscent of their earlier work, BANGKOK DANGEROUS, half-a-Pang flashes quick visuals with unusual camera angles almost universally throughout TESSERACT. However, some of the visuals pull the viewer away from the story a bit much, so the effectiveness of the technique -- perhaps a further study in it so far as Oxide is concerned -- is arguably debatable ... but the film's atmosphere is not. You can almost smell the decay when you're drenched with the seedier parts of the city, finding yourself quite possibly as repulsed as you are captivated by the events. Think of Oxide Pang's work as very Spielbergian in terms of tone and lighting, but with healthy parts of Scorsese thrown in to propel the narration.
Well-paced except for a few awkward moments early one where technique clearly outdistances the story, this slick glossy still makes for quality & interesting viewing ... but, as for shelf life, it might have a short life except for fans of the Pang Brothers and/or experimental films.
The Punisher (2004)
It's hard to know what to make of THE PUNISHER, Marvel's counterpoint to DC Comics' THE BATMAN. Both characters are vigilantes; both characters have been turned into who they are due to the criminal deaths of their families; and both are mere mortals. However, whereas THE BATMAN was given a big screen reception with star power and a modestly entertaining script, THE PUNISHER -- in its second attempt at the silver screen -- seems to languish in mediocrity.
Tom Jane does an admirable job at trying to bring sense to the life of Frank Castle, a former government agent who retires from the job in order to, finally, spend more time with his family. However, his last job -- playing a drug lord in a sting operation -- goes horribly awry and ends up causing the shooting death of a thug belonging to the Saint family ... and Howard Saint (played in almost understated parody by the usually reliable John Travolta) wants Castle and his family dead as a consequence. True enough, a squadron of professional killers are dispatched to due in the reliable screen talent of the lovely Samantha Mathis (appearing briefly as Mrs. Castle) and JAWS and BLUE THUNDER action star Roy Scheider (appearing even more briefly as Frank Castle, Sr.); however, logic fails the bad guys as the appear almost singly in the future endeavors, always a fatal mistake when going mano-a-mano with a comic book character.
This isn't to say that THE PUNISHER doesn't have its strengths. To the contrary, this telling is a slight departure from the original Punisher mythos, where Castle basically declares war on the mob/mafia as retribution for the killing of his family; this time out, Castle is given a new 'family' of sorts that takes the shapes of the unlikely group of tenants in the building where he lives: the comely Rebecca Romijm-Stamos (Joan), John Pinette (Bumpo), and Ben Foster (Dave). In fact, PUNISHER tries but fails to reach some of the heights hinted at when Dave, after being inadvertently protected by Castle, mumbles, "No one ever stood up for me before." Unfortunately, the touching moments are quickly dispatched with sorely predictable gunplay and explosions, and sentimentality is sacrificed for near lunacy of a plot.
Sadly, the film is short far more like a television movie than it is a true theatrical outing befitting some of Marvel's other recent properties (SPIDER-MAN and THE HULK as example), and a significant portion of film is bathed in blackness, making the murky picture only fall hand-in-hand with the murkier script. Some moments are sacrificed by the lovely eye candy of Laura Harring as the modestly grief-stricken Livia Saint, but, as Travolta says, "She took a train."
All this and thrown in a woefully out-of-place baddie named only "The Russian" seemingly plucked from a really bad "Popeye" script keeps this Punisher dishing out more punishment on the audience than the bad guys who deserved it.
"Crazy" To Have Been Made, Crazier To Have Been Seen!
Silly, simplistic, and short, GUN CRAZY (VOLUME 1: A WOMAN FROM NOWHERE) goes nowhere.
This brief (just over sixty minutes) tale isn't so much inspired by the classic spaghetti Westerns as it is a rip-off of Sam Raimi's THE QUICK & THE DEAD (his admitted homage to the spaghetti Westerns) brought into a contemporary setting. In QUICK & DEAD, Sharon Stone's character seeks revenge against the dastardly sheriff (played by Gene Hackman) who, when she was but an urchin, placed the fate of her father (a brief cameo by Gary Sinise) in her hands; she accidentally shot him through the head. In GUN CRAZY, Saki (played by the nimble Ryoko Yonekura) seeks revenge against the dastardly Mr. Tojo (played with minimalist appeal by Shingo Tsurumi), who, when she was but an urchin, placed the fate of her father in her hands; she let her foot slip off the clutch, and dear ole dad was drawn and quartered by a semi truck. The only significant difference, despite the settings, is the fact that Tojo sadistically cripples Saki with well, I won't spoil that for you in case you decide to watch it.
In short, Saki a pale imitation of the Clint Eastwood's 'Man With No Name' rides into the town basically, there's a auto shop and a tavern alongside an American military base, so I guess that suffices for a town corrupted by Tojo, the local crimelord with a ridiculously high price on his head for reasons never explained or explored. Confessing her true self as a bounty hunter, Saki takes on the local gunmen in shootouts whose choreography bares more than a passing similarity to the works of Johnny To and John Woo. Of course, by the end of the film Saki has endured her fair amount of torture at the hands of the bad guys, but she rises to the occasion on her knees, in a laughable attempt at a surprise ending and vanquishes all of her enemies with a rocket launcher.
Don't ask where she gets the rocket launcher. Just watch it for yourself. Try not to laugh.
The image quality is average for the DVD release. There is a grainy quality to several sequences, but, all in all, this isn't a bad transfer. The sound quality leaves a bit to the imagination at times, but, again, it isn't a bad transfer.
Rather, it's a bad film.
Kuet chin chi gam ji din (2000)
Almost No DUEL To Speak Of!
THE DUEL is the kind of film that gains a solid reputation by the talent involved (the ever-reliable Andy Lau, Ekin Cheng, Patrick Tam, Nick Cheung, etc.), despite the fact that the story -- a "duel to end all duels" between the God of Swords and a member of the royal family -- is mediocre, at best, riddled with bad jokes, confusing dialogue, and unexplored relationships.
Yek Koo Sing (Lau) requests he be granted "the duel" with the God of Swords, and the Emperor reluctantly agrees ... however, the man sends (agent) Dragon 9 to investigate, despite the fact that there is very little to investigate, as the viewers is soon to learn.
While the special effects for THE DUEL are especially good throughout, they're also annoyingly intrusive to the storyline: during the climactic final sword battle between the God of Swords and Yek Koo Sing, there is plenty of metal clanking and flash lightning despite the fact that the two opponents rarely even touch swords! While much of the battle is symbolic, it's still a very unusual creative choice made by the folks behind the film.
While this duel apparently has spawned more than four films, over 10 television series, and many books, the story is reduced to a battle which lasts less than five minutes in a (roughly) two hour film. The rest of the film centers upon a series a unsignificant romances, incidental secondary battles, and crude sophomoric humor. Was it the writer's intent to turn this epic struggle into a comedy? If it wasn't, then the film suffers from horrific editing, as the first hour is primarily a study in using foul language.
Still, it's hard not to recognize the merits of THE DUEL. It is well-edited and well-photographed, and, for the most part, the performers all hit their marks. Andy Lau -- when he's given the chance -- brings greater focus and depth to the picture, though he appears miscast here.