Sunday, 15 October 2017

The Bad Batch

Title: The Bad Batch
Director: Ana Lily Amirpour
Released: 2014
Starring: Suki Waterhouse, Jason Momoa, Keanu Reeves, Jim Carrey, Yolonda Ross, Giovanni Ribisi, Jayda Fink, Diego Luna, Cory Roberts, E.R. Ruiz

Plot: In the near future criminals and other society rejects are dumped in a fenced off area of desert wasteland outside of the Texas. The latest addition to this community is Arlen (Waterhouse) who soon finds herself having to traverse the landscape of scavengers, cannibals and cultists if she is going to survive this dangerous and lawless world.

Review: Following on from the critically adored “A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night” director Ana Lily Amirpour chooses to follow it up here with this sun soaked dose of dystopia while at the same time seemingly channelling the cinema outlaws Harmony Korine and Greg Araki to craft a fiercly unique vision which will likely prove too abstract for the mainstream movie goer but there is unquestionably something here.

Bringing to mind Richard Kelly’s fiercely diversive “Southland Tales” here Amirpour clearly sets out with a vision for her sophomore effort, though at the same time its one which will either enthral or bore you depending on your own opinion of the film the former of which I certainly found myself in even if at times its hard to actually know what is supposed to be happening other than a whole lot of cannibalism and desert wandering and this of course makes it the sort of film as a critic you kind of dread encountering. I mean how are you supposed to write about nothing? Still as I sit here writing this two days after I first watched it this is a film which continues to run through my head so that I feel compelled to get something down about it.

Opening to Arlen being dumped into this world we are mere moments into the film before she is set upon by one of the resident cannibals who quickly relieve her of one of her arms and a leg before she sets out to escape across the desert on a skateboard reminiscent in a scene reminiscent of the opening of “There Will Be Blood” whose record of no dialogue for the first 14.5 minutes this film smashes by none of the characters actually talking till we are 30 mins in. Its also during this sequence that we are introduced to the Hermit played throughout the film in complete silence by Jim Carrey just one of a series of interesting casting choices which also sees Keanu Reeves showing up as the cult-like leader of the town Comfort known only as “The Dream” who runs a sideline in pot with his harem of pregnant ladies.

Across the desert landscape we encounter a number of settlements which has sprung up with Amirpour following in the footsteps of George Miller as the residents have constructed shanty towns out of aeroplane parts and broken down trailers, creating a new society for themselves and one seemingly styled by the same costume department Harmony Korine uses from Arlen’s winking booty shorts to Jason Momoa’s “Miami Man” chest tattoo which serves like an alt-culture name tag, though why she went with that name like so much of the film is a complete mystery.

Arlen though is quick to adapt to this world as the film skips forward six month once she arrives in comfort to were has she gained a prosthetic leg and spend her time wandering the wasteland which is were the main story of sorts begins when she picks up the Miami Man’s daughter Honey (Fink) after killing her cannibal mother. From here though its really a lot of wandering as Miami Man tries to find his now missing daughter before further wandering with Arlen when Honey gets picked up by Keanu Reeve’s cult leader “The Dream” during an acid infused rave sequence.

Miami Man on the other hand is a slightly more complex character as Momoa spend the film wandering around shirtless and looking like he was carved out of wood, a cold warrior hardened by the enviroment around him, who feels nothing about keeping a woman chained up in his yard to use for food, inbetween painting detailed paintings of his daughter, though its a connection more confirmed in the wikipedia plot summery than in the film, were she comes across like a girl from his camp. He however like the other characters is a fascinating to watch on screen with Amirpour only giving us small hints of details about these characters and leaving us as the audience to figure things out, which while certainly a bold choice is also the kind of thing which put off audience not wanting to sit through something so abstract.

Now if any of this is sounding like a confusing mess then you probably would be right and yet its a fascinating mess which Amirpour allows you to get lost in using minimalistic dialogue and instead attention grabbing visuals to tell her story if you can even really call it that. Instead what it often feels like is more of a snapshot of these characters lives as we follow them like ghosts in this world and much like with “Ghost World” we are just along for the ride as events play out acting more like the observers than actually being part of this world. Of course if David Lynch can get away with telling a story on the latest season of Twin Peaks over 18 episode when he really only needed four, then why can't we enjoy a visually arresting and minimalist desert romp? Yes this really isn’t going to be for everyone and already I can see this film ending up like “Southland Tales” as its as hated as its adored.

Wednesday, 11 October 2017

The Maze Runner

Title: The Maze Runner
Director: Wes Ball
Released: 2014
Starring: Dylan O’Brien, Kaya Scodelario, Ami Ameen, Thomas Brodie-Sangster, Ki Hong Lee, Will Poulter, Patricia Clarkson, Blake Cooper

Plot: Awakening in an elevator with no idea of how he got there, Thomas (O’Brien) now finds himself in “The Glade” at the centre of a large maze along with a group of other teenage boys. Now they must unite to the not only escape the maze but also the cyborg monster known as “Grievers” who prey on anyone who ventures into the maze.

Review: While I might have initially ignored this film on its original release dismissing it as another Young Adult novel adaptation especially with “The Hunger Games” being such a success and yet there was still something which appealed about the concept. So having it play recently on one of the movie channels I thought I’d finally give it look.

The directorial debut of Wes Ball who’d originally approached 20th Century Fox with the intention of getting his short film “Ruin” made into a feature length production only to instead be offered the chance to direct this film seeing how it shared a similar tone to his short film.

Hitting the ground running this is a world which is quickly established for the audience with the Gladers having carved out an lfe for themselves in the centre of Maze over the three years which have passed since their appointed leader Alby arrived while appointing members known as runners to explore the maze and find their way out. Its somewhat refreshing that Thomas doesn’t straight away take over as the leader, even if he adapts to the situation he finds himself in surprisingly quickly especially when it comes to facing the Grievers.

The design work for throughout the film is fantastic from the high walls of the ever changing maze bringing back memories of “Labyrinth” through to the bio-mechanical design of the Grievers who look great and whose seemingly unstoppable nature only adds to their threat its really an immersive and believable world that the story takes place in.

Despite being an adaptation of the first book in James Dashner’s “Maze Runner” series here we have a film which is actually free of the usual hang up’s which plague the genre such as the dashing whip smart lead, the love intrest and goofy sidekick. Instead what we get is what could be seen as a regular sci-fi thriller were it not for the young cast who manage to put across convincing performances throughout, especially as the film frequently drifts into several darker moments especially as the structure of the group beings to fall apart and certain members begin to make their own power plays

The real question mark amongst the group here is Teresa (Scodelario) the first and only female to be sent to the Glade, which might have you thinking that she’s there to play the love interest for Thomas but she really isn’t and ultimately bring little to nothing to the story other than being eye candy for the film and perhaps to relive any potential homoerotic undertone that some might have garnered from the group being consisted solely of boys. Yes she might share a history with Thomas which is touched upon and seeing how we have another two volumes in the series to cover which might give her more to to, but at this point I constantly found myself questioning what role she was supposed to be playing.

The other issue here comes with the ending which decides to info dump the secrets of the Maze and reason the Gladers were placed there ultimatly coming as something of a let down especially having gone through the thrill of that final run through the maze. This is only added to by the introduction of the fantastic Patricia Clarkson as the mastermind behind the maze who leaves almost as quickly as she enters and while I can understand her late introduction due to wanting to maintain an air of mystery but she could really have benefited from having a little more room for her character to breathe, which looking at how the film ends I assume she might get in the next film.

An entertaining romp throughout it might not be the deepest of films, but certainly as far as one of adaptations of Teen fiction go this is miles ahead of the competition making me keen to see were the story goes next. 

Monday, 9 October 2017

Scouts Guide to the Zombie Apocalypse

Title: Scouts Guide to the Zombie Apocalypse
Director: Christopher B Landon
Released: 2015
Starring: Tye Sheridan, Logan Miller, Joey Morgan, Sarah Dumont, David Koechner, Halston Sage, Cloris Leachman, Niki Koss, Hiram A. Murray

Plot: Ben (Sheridan), Carter (Miller) and Augie (Morgan) are a trio of high school sophomores aswell as the sole members of their local scout troop. The trio however soon find their skills being put to a completely different kind of test as they are forced into battling the undead hordes alongside cocktail waitress Denise (Dumont)

Review: The Zombie genre might currently be one of the most overworked sub-genres of horror at present, largely down to the fact that its also one of the easiest for any aspiring director to put together on the cheap. The obvious downside to this of course being that the zombie market is now saturated with direct to DVD throwaway titles and “28 Days Later” clones and none with any of the charm of the Romero Dead saga which gave birth to the modern zombie movie in the first place. Combine this with the fact that zombies since “28 Days Later” now have to be a fast moving swarm than their original shuffling unrelenting horde clearly lost on modern audience and the problems only increase. This situation however does makes it only the more special when a decent zombie film does turn up.

A 2010 blacklist script, right from the start its clear what sort of film this is going to be as Blake Anderson’s dim-witted janitor manages to unleash a zombie virus from the local science lab. The shots of him being thrown around the lab by a recently awakened zombie in the background while the scientist argues with the vending machine perfectly setting the tone for what is to follow as we get treated to a delicious blend of slapstick and gross out gags.

Meeting our heroes for the first time, its clear that their troop have fallen on hard times as they are now the only members with Ben and Carter only sticking around to support their friend Augie who is working towards his condor patch while his friends are more focused on sneaking out to a secret seniors party they hear about from Carter’s sister. This party providing the final battle ground for the trio as they battle the hordes across the city. Still thanks to them being such a likeable group its a fun journey to follow them on, even if their characters aren't especially deep outside of a few surface characteristics. Adding to the group is cocktail waitress Denise who is no damsel in distress especially when she spends most of the time saving the boys as she joins them on their quest. Yes she might be there largely for the sex appeal factor but thankfully by having her be so capable of holding her own as a zombie slayer it at least makes her character arc a little less obvious.

One of the strengths of the film though is how quickly we dive into the zombie fun as with the film running at a rapid pace which only further works to its advantage as the shocks and laughs come fast and heavy especially during the escape from their neighbourhood were it seems each escape leads them into a worse situation as they are forced to battle an OAP zombie and her horde of zombie cats building to the final showdown with the hordes at the seniors party. This finale only being added to by the trio showing up with a small armoury of makeshift weapons to the strains of “Rock You Like A Hurricane” by the Scorpions.

A genuinely funny and splatter heavy comedy here director Christopher B. Landon manages to tap into that magical formula that Peter Jackson captured with his early splatter films like “Bad Taste” and “Braindead” (or “Dead Alive” as its known in the states) while running the film through the lens of 80’s cinema such as “The Monster Squad” or “The Goonies” and thankfully sidestepping the usual attempts to recreate this era by keeping the story firmly in the present. Needless to say this is the film the zombie fans have been craving.

Saturday, 7 October 2017

Come Drink With Me

Title: Come Drink With Me
Director: King Hu
Released: 1966
Starring: Cheng Pei-pei, Yueh Hua, Chan Hung-lit, Lee Wan-chung, Yeung Chi-hing, Ku Feng, Jao Li-jen, Wong Chung, Cheung Hei, Angela Pan

Plot: When a group of thugs kidnaps a young official in a bid to free their imprisoned leader Golden Swallow (Cheng Pei-pei) is sent to rescue him, while finding unlikely help in the beggar and secret kung fu master Drunken Cat (Yueh Hua)

Review: For a film which is seen as such an important milestone for martial arts cinema its somewhat frustrating that like the majority of films in the Shaw Brothers back catalogue that like the Godzilla series the lousy distribution has meant that bar a handful of titles few have made it over to region 2. True Amazon have now started to add some of these films but it still doesn’t answer the question as to why this film has been so frequently over looked while we can get 7+ releases of every Bruce Lee movie.

Noteworthy for being the first Martial arts film to move away from the Chinese opera inspired theatrics which had for the longest time been a staple of the Martial Arts genre, here director King Hu ushered in a brief era of serious minded martial arts movies which ultimately would meet its demise with the rise in popularity of the wire-fu movies. However its ideals would not be squashed entirely with the early 2000’s it was clear that they were instead merely dormant as the influence of this film can certainly be seen in the likes of Zhang Yimou “Hero” and “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” which saw Ang Lee bringing the star of this film Cheng Pei-pei out of retirement to play the villainous Jade Fox.

Despite only being 19 when she headlined this film Cheng Pei-pei confidently plays the role of Golden Swallow, a role she would play again in the sequel, but also setting her on the path of being one of the more identifiable Swordswomen in martial arts cinema which has seen her working almost continuously since. Here though she is captivating in the role from the first scene we see her in as she enters the local Inn looking for information on the bandits holding the official who is also her brother.

While more restrained in its action than other titles in the Shaw Bros. Back catalogue when we do get an action scene it is still entracing to watch her movements, especially with her fighting style being less based around power but instead focusing on graceful movements which plays to Cheng Pei-pei’s advantage with her background as a dancer much like Michelle Yeoh with her ability to memorise choreography here proving much key than the martial arts training she undertook prior to making the film. That being said Pei-pei already establishes herself as a badass before she even draws her sword warning a group of would-be attackers with the use of chopsticks and coins which she embeds in the walls of the inn with ease. My favourite of these subtle little movements though is the slight shift of her gaze to the side which would go on to be one of her trademarks.

Outside of Pei-pei’s scenes there is plenty of enjoyable sword play with the film opening to the bandits massacring the government official's guard. A scene which is surprisingly bloody even including a hand being almost comedically hacked off in the fray. At the same time we do get some surprisingly shocking moments of violence mixed in including the murder of a child monk by the villain Smiling Tiger (Lee Wan-chung) which comes seemingly out of nowhere and seeing how its so jarring compared to the rest of the film, I can’t help but wonder if this was as shocking back when the film was originally released.

One of the more jarring aspects of the film though is how Golden Swallow is pushed into the background when she gets hit with a poison dart around the halfway point with the focus instead shifting to Drunken Cat (Yueh Hua) the begger and martial arts master in hiding. Infact even our main villian at this point, the pancake makeup loving and generally theatrical Smiling Tiger is changed out for the evil abbot Liao Kung (Yeung Chi-hiung) who he attended the same Kung-fu school as Drunken Cat. There conflict providing one of the more fantastic elements of the film as the pair exchange magical blows as they battle for control over the bamboo staff of their master.

Seemingly this shift was down to King Hu doubting the abilities of Yueh Hua as a leading man, even though he does end up stealing most of the scenes he appears in, while Jackie Chan has noted the character was an inspiration for his own comedic and physical style of moment as Yueh Hua paints a very different idea of the martial arts hero, especially when compared to Golden Swallow.#

A enjoyable romp with some standout action sequences which alone are worth giving it a look, let alone the star making turn by Cheng Pei-pei

Sunday, 1 October 2017

xXx - Return of Xander Cage

Title: xXx: Return of Xander Cage
Director: D.J. Caruso
Released: 2017
Starring: Vin Diesel, Donnie Yen, Deepika Padukone, Kris Wu, Ruby Rose, Tony Jaa, Nina Dobrev, Samuel L. Jackson, Toni Collette

Plot: Extreme sports hero Xander Cage (Diesel) has been living in self-imposed exile since being recruited by the government's “xXx” program, only to be brought back when a weapon known as Pandora’s Box capable of crashing satellites is stolen by Xiang (Yen).

Review: The original “xXx” released back in 2002 is something of a guilty pleasure for myself as it not only managed to combine extreme sports with James Bond style hijinks, but also freshen up the spy genre which had certainly lost its edge with “xXx” giving us a louder and flashier and generally over the top take on material much like we’d got with “True Lies”. Sadly while the series certainly looked like it had potential to spawn a number of fun adventures for the character, the tepid “xXx: State of the Union” essentially killed the franchise dead as the combination of heavy CGI and a charmless and generally loud Ice Cube make for a forgettable experience while Vin Diesel went on to growl about family a whole bunch in the “Fast and Furious” franchise

Of course the idea of Vin Diesel returning to the series was certainly welcomed by myself not only because he is one of the more underrated leading men of the action genre, but also for how he truly made the character of Xander Cage, an extreme sports caricature more of a believable creation even adding tattoos to the character which paid homage his own D&D characters. Sadly in the fifteen years have passed since his last outing and with the Riddick saga not really connecting with the audiences the way that I think he would have liked, its clear that Vin Diesel viewed this return as more of a backup option.

No doubt due to the success of the “Fast and Furious” franchise this time Xander isn’t saving the world alone as we now find him being lumbered with a team of uninspired creations which include sharpshooter Adele Wolff (Rose), stuntman / getaway driver Tennyson “The Torch” (McCann) and errr DJ Havard “Nicks” Zhou (Wu) while Nina Dobrev is on hand as the CIA weapons specialist Becky essentially replacing the Agent Shaver character from the first two films. All of these characters being introduced with freeze frame flashes as pop trivia cards appear longside them, just incase anyone was keen to know that Adele’s gamer tag is “Lady Boner”. Of course none of this flash can disguise the fact that all of these additions much like their enemy counterparts are all bland cutouts, overworked in their background details in a vain attempt to make them seem more hip than your average spy. Instead all we end up with though is a bunch of irritating caricatures than anything resembling a fully developed let alone likeable character.

The other issue we get is that every time you have any two characters together it turns into an ego contest as they constantly seem to be wanting to prove who is the most extreme, be it via a game of hang grenade hot potato or the the excruciating tattoo story scene between Xander and Serena (Padukone) as the claims they make grow ever more ridiculous including her claiming that she climbed the Millenium Eye naked. Perhaps this was to add more sex appeal to a character who spend nearly the whole film in various states of undress, but instead just left me rolling my eyes.

These scripting issues continually plague the film which doesn’t take the gap between films into account, meaning that Vin Diesel ends up coming off like the dad trying to show how hip he is to the young kids, which might have been fine if there hadn’t been that 15 year gap and as such ends up with Xander coming off frequently akward throughout even though its clear that Diesel is attempting to charm the audience through the material. These issues aside Xander is very clumsily written here, devoid of any of the charm which made him such a likeable character in the original, let alone the fact that he was able to succeed were his spy counterparts failed because he wasn’t some trained spy and relied on instinct, his skills and general Playstation training. This time round he’s too much of a spy and generally too knowledgable of the espionage world especially for someone whose supposed to have removed themselves from this world. Another issue is the lack of a decent bad guy, an issue which also hindered the previous sequel and here its pretty much the same problems again, when surely it shouldn’t have been too hard to come up with another Eurotrash villain than just leading us in one big circle which the changing face of evil here ultimately creates.

The action scenes are enjoyable enough throughout, though nothing comes close to matching what we got in the original film, especially with the use of CGI being so heavy it really becomes hard to distinguish the few moments when we do get practical effect work. Even with two fantastic martial Artists like Donnie Yen (stepping in for Jet Li) and Tony Jaa in the cast they end up feeling squandered here with Caruso shooting them so close and choppy that their abilities never really get chance to shine through, which for the established fans of their work will only prove the more frustrating. Equally squandered is Samuel L. Jackson who here bookends the film and is removed far too quickly just to establish the introduction of his replacement Jane Marks (Collette)

Sadly still not the sequel to the classic original we wanted especially when proves to be just as forgettable as the previous film.
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