Friday, 23 November 2018

The Midnight Meat Train

Title: The Midnight Meat Train
Director: Ryuhei Kitamura
Released: 2008
Starring: Bradley Cooper, Leslie Bibb, Brooke Shields, Roger Bart, Ted Raimi Vinnie Jones

Plot: Leon (Cooper) is a photographer with an obsession with the darker side of the city, however when challenged by gallery owner Susan Hoff (Shields) to find darker subject matter he by chance discovers a serial killer (Jones) using the midnight subway system as an abattoir.

Review: Another film to be adapted from Clive Barker’s “Books of Blood” short story collection this film also marked the English language debut from director Ryuhei Kitamura who much like Barker is equally no stranger to blending genres. My main reason for checking this one out those was the memory of Vinnie Jones’ role as the sharply dressed serial killer who rides the midnight subway trains being compared to that of Arnold Schwarzenegger in “The Terminator” and its certainly a performance he nails here with him imposing form and ice cold demenor.

Bradley Cooper’s role as the photographer Leon meanwhile is kind of confusing as here he plays a photographer obsessed with exposing the seedier side of the city which we are lead to believe is for artistic purposes while at the same time he shows no qualms about putting himself in harms way when he chooses to photo graph a gang on the subway. Frustratingly the background or reasons for Leon pursuing this work is never made clear so why he’s willing to take such risks much less become so obsessed with tracking down this suspected killer.

Of course seeing how this is a film being based off a short story there is of course the requirement to pad out the story which here questionably adds Leon’s girlfriend who really doesn’t add a huge amount to the film in terms of plot and really only served to bring an element of melodrama to the final act. What is confusing though is how Kitamura manages to craft a film which is clearly in need of some trimming as while the additional elements certainly don’t detract from the story the film still felt like it overstayed it welcome especially when it passed the point I felt like we should be getting some kind of resolution.

Unsurprisingly for Kitamura and the fact this is based on a Clive Barker text the film is gratuitously bloody which can in some scenes work such as one potential victim attempting to craw across the blood drenched floor while other seem like bad 3D effects which made me wonder if this film has ever been scheduled for any kind of 3D release. Still there is still some inventive violence on show here as skulls are clubbed with a meat hammer and crimson sprays across the carriages. The highlight being when we get to see the nights quota of victims strung up like a human abattoir.
Outside of the gore which is the arguably the obvious draw here Kitamura also brings his underrated eye for detail in his settings as he bring a real feeling of sleaze to the subways, while a cat and mouse style chase through an abattoir bringing a real menace to Jones character as he stares down a corridor of carcasses. All of which rises it about the predicted disposable horror that the film is sold as, something also not helped by its throwaway distribution by the studio.

A frustrating film at time as it diverges from being an effective thriller to tedium but when it works it is an effective film but far from what fans of Kitamura have come to expect from the director who here feels at times like he's had his wings clipped.

Friday, 16 November 2018

Urotsukidoji: Legend of the Overfiend

Title:Urotsukidoji: Legend of the Overfiend
Director:Hideki Takayama

Review: Reknown as one of the landmark titles of adult animation, this notorious anime adapted from Toshio Maeda’s manga has continued to shock each new generation of anime fan who no doubt were directed to it by the previous generation. Of course when it was released in 1989 it served in many ways to taint the impression the general public had about anime while the hysteria lead by newspapers such as The Daily Mail began leading a public outcry to “Ban this sick filth”.
Of course looking at the film its easy to understand why audience were so shocked when this title was released especially when there was nothing else really like anime with the genre’s seemingly carefree attitude its gratuitous sex and violence with the closest we had come to such material in the west being the sporadic adult animated title such as Heavy Metal or the films of Ralph Bakshi. Infact so uneducated were audiences at the time especially with there being no internet to refer to, anime was often refered to as Japanimation or Manga which was certainly the case in the UK thanks to majority of titles being put out by Manga entertainment.

Because of Urotsukidoji’s notorious legacy for myself it was always a title I avoided much like many of the demon based titles, largely due to the feeling of watching something you really shouldn’t especially with popular titles of the era such as Violence Jack, Wicked City and Genocyber which seemed to relish the levels of sex and violence with thie popularity of these titles in many ways influenced the titles being available when I started getting into Anime in the late 90’s were the focus was often on more adventure, sci-fi and horror based titles than the staggering range that anime fans now have available to them. At the same time with most anime being only accessible via VHS releases / tape trading it limited further what you could watch with the cost of these tapes often making you more cautious about not wanting to be lumped with a tape you couldn’t pass on. Still with the aim of trying to cross off the list those anime titles for one reason or another I’d missed I finally decided to bite the bullet and watch it.

Originally released as a series of three OVA’s (Original Video Animation) which were edited down into this theatrical version for western audiences at the same time cutting around 40 mins of gratuitous sex and violence, something that many fans / anime sweaties are often quick to gripe about despite there still being plenty of nudity, gratuitous violence and demons befiling humans left in the film and taking a look at the cuts list its nothing that I personally can’t live without but of course if your the sort of anime fan who wants to see such things and have the extra bucks to pay trader prices you can hunt down the uncut version released in the Perfect collection via Anime 18.

The film meanwhile see’s the Earth realm as one of three interconnected dimensions alongside the demon dimension of the Makai and the more ethereal realm of the beast people known as the Jujinkai which our antihero Amano and his sister Megumi belong to. The pair have spent the last 300 years looking for the Chojin (or Overfiend) who according to legend rises every 3000 years to bring the three realms together in harmony. However despite the seemingly straightforward plot this is a film heavy in random sub-plots and schemes being carried out by various members of the demon realm whose encounters with humans usually end in splatter heavy violence and more worryingly rape, something the film certainly takes a shockingly lax approach to compared to the west.

Amano and Megumi’s mission soon leads them to encounter the shy clutz and occasional peeping Tom, Negumo who has fallen for the popular cheerleader Akemi and following a series of situations which unquestionably make for awkward viewing the pair end up forming an unlikely couple which is of course only complicated further when Negumo is revealed to be the Chojin that Amano and Meguimi have been hunting for. A reveal which in one of the more memorable moments sees him taking on his gigantic demon form in a transformation sequence which sees a trio of penis tentacles tearing through a hospital. The plot at times can feel confusing and distracted which many fans blame on the cuts while for myself it was mainly because of its desire to constantly work in those graphic moments which see the film diverting off course to add another thrill but when it works its still an interesting plot with some fun twists along the way, especially as the prophecy might play out the way that Amano expects.

Much like it’s creator the film’s influence on erotic anime and especially the Hentai genre can be seen throughout the film as its hard to ignore the scenes of graphic sex and roaming tentacles which when combined with the explict violence makes it far from the most accessible anime even though there are titles which followed in its wake which certainly pushed the boundaries of taste further including Toshio Maeda’s own L.A. Blue Girl. Needless to say that despite its importance within the history of anime, this is not going to suit all tastes however if you can stomach the more explict aspects to the film it is still an enjoyable…if that’s the right way to phrase such an experience that this film certainly is.

Sunday, 8 July 2018

Andre The Giant

Title: Andre The Giant
Director: Jason Hehir
Released: 2018

Plot: Documentary charting the career and life of wrestling legend Andre Rene Roussimoff better known as Andre the Giant.

Review: If we are to believe everything about Andre we would be lead to believe he had three rows of teeth and could drink 107 beers in a single sitting. But standing at 7ft 4 in Andre was as big as his legend not to mention one of the most recognisable faces in professional wrestling even to non wrestling fans and it’s this legend that director Jason Hehir attempts to find the truth behind as he features extensive interview footage with his family, his fellow wrestlers and “Princess Bride” cast members to craft a portrait of this iconic figure. This is a film certanly not afraid to showcase his life from the triumphant highs to the crushing lows which lead to his premature demise.

Charting his rise to fame in the first half it’s clear that Hehir is as fascinated with Andre’s status as a real life giant as everyone who saw him while he charts the making of his legend as he starts his rise through the wrestling ranks becoming a headline attraction back when wrestling was still broken up into territories defined by local television coverage. Soon ending up as one of the biggest stars of Vince McMahon’s “World Wrestling Federation” now better known as the “WWE” as he helped McMahon essentially bring the end to the territories as the company rode the introducion of cable TV.

One of the strengths of the documentary really is in how Hehir manages to make a film which is as appealing to the establish fan as it is to the newcommer as while there might be extensive talk of the wrestling territories and backstage politics here memorably highlighted by Andre chasing off his minder while he’s trying to play cards. Hehir manages to explain the mechanics of the wrestling industry to the newcomer without slowing down the pace of the documentary. To this extent it can be alittle jarring to have Hulk Hogan seemingly hijacking the documentary to talk about his own career but thankfully he’s on refreshingly modest form and its inclusion is more to build up the showdown between himself and Andre and their iconic match at Wrestlemania 3.

As a wrestling fan the film more than delivers especially with the wealth of archive footage which is included, especially for the lesser seen early portions of Andre’s career. The documentary also does not shy away from the brutal backstage politics of wrestling with many of the wrestlers interviewed openly discussing Andre intentionally roughing up wrestlers who either annoyed him or he perceived as threatening his spot and its refreshing that the documentary doesn’t shy away from the more negative aspects of Andre which only adds to the build up to his match with Hogan were going into the match Hogan had no idea if Andre was going to go along with his match plan or not.

While a large portion of the film is unsurprisingly devoted to his wrestling career Hehir does touch briefly on the making of “The Princess Bride” were he memorably appeared as the giant Fezzik a role which William Goldman had written with him in mind. Perhaps disappointingly to fans of the film this section is one of the briefest but it does feature some fond memories by his co-stars Cary Elwes and Billy Crystal aswell as Director Rob Reiner reminiscing of dealing with a drunk Andre suspended on wires so they could film a horse riding sequence.

Unquestionably this is both touching tribute to the legendary wrestler which wrestling fans will certainly enjoy but at the same time accessable enough that the uninitiated will still find much to enjoy here.

Tuesday, 20 March 2018

Island Claws

Title: Island Claws
Director: Hernan Cardenas
Released: 1980
Starring: Robert Lansing, Steve Hanks, Nita Talbot, Jo McDonnell, Martina Deignan, Barry Nelson, Tony Rigo, Raymond Forchion, Dick Callinan, Dolores Sandoz, Frank Schuller, Mal Jones

Plot: When a leak at a Florida power plant dumps several thousand tons of toxic waste into the ocean it causes the local crab population to suddenly start growing to monsterious size and start moving in on the local population of a nearby fishing village.

Review: The sole film from director Hernan Cardenas while also written by Ricou Browning and Jack Cowden who also created “Flipper” making their move into writing a movie about killer giant crabs a perfectly logical one. This late entry in the animals run amok genre doesn’t exactly bring anything new to the genre outside of the fact that its about giant crabs which compared to the numerous shark movies out there is certainly one of the lesser seen creatures of terror. I mean even ants to my knowledge have clocked up more movies than our crustacean pals have but stumbling across this on Amazon Prime who recently have become almost shameless with the kind of movies they choose to stock their on demand library with I thought it was an interesting enough concept to check it out.

Opening to a research lab were they are conducting experiments in increasing the size of crabs using warm water and growth hormones as a warm to help increase the world’s food supplies, especially when they discover that the local crab population near the power plant have been growing bigger which of course is nothing to do with the fact that a few tons of toxic waste have been dumped in their part of the ocean which anyone up to speed on their movie logic will know already that movie radiation equals giant monsters compared to real life were it sadly this is never the case. It’s here though that we are introduced to journalist Jan (McDonnell) who is writing a story on the lab only to soon also get involved with scientist Pete (Hanks).

Elsewhere bar owner Moody attempts to keep the small town together by acting as their unofficial head as he keeps the peace amongst the locals usually by keeping them boozed up in his bar while he also acts as Pete’s adopted father after his parents were killed in a drink driving accident caused by Jan’s father who also runs the power station responsible for all the giant crabs. There is a small part which hints at bad blood between the two fathers but is as dropped as quickly as its introduced like so many of the sub-plots in the film which includes a group of Haitian refugees who wash up on the outskirts of town and hide out in the mangroves and whose sole reason for their inclusion seems to be so that Cardenas could work in an angry mob who thanks to some old school racist tendency believe that the Hiatians are to blame for all the strange happenings in town which they equate to voodoo reminding us once more that there are few things as dangerous as a group of drunks with an idea.

The crab attack are sadly pretty sparse here and for the most part involve actors working with a swarm of real crabs which are actually used pretty effectivly especially during one of the scenes highlights when they swarm the school bus which one of the locals Amos lives in with his attempts to battle the invading crabs showing us that the banjo is as little use as a weapon as it is an actual instrument.

The climax of the film though see’s the towns folk battling an 8 foot crab which somehow has managed to remain hidden until it suddenly destroys Moody’s house. Created by Glen Robinson who’d previously worked on effects for “King Kong” (1976) and “Flash Gordon which far exceeds the expectations of the films low budget especially when he built a complete crab and not just the front portion which you’d expect. While still an impressive looking design it sadly lacks any real movement meaning the actors are forced to run around a lot shooting at it with shotguns and generally trying to sell it as being more of a threat than it really is and perhaps Cardenas might have been better just sticking with his initial crab swarm.

The downside to the film other than the occasionally plodding plot threads certainly comes from the lack of lighting during the night sequences which really make it hard to see what exactly is supposed to be happening half the time, which one of the attack scenes is for the most part impossible to make out meaning that it lost much of its effect.

On the whole its not a bad film just not the sort of film that your likely to watch more than once and even then its throwaway entertainment at best especially if your a fan of the genre.

Sunday, 4 March 2018

American Ninja

Title: American Ninja
Director: Sam Firstenberg
Released: 1985
Starring: Michael Dudikoff, Steve James, Judie Aronson, Guich Koock, John Fujioka, Don Stewart, John LaMotta, Tadashi Yamashita, Phil Brock, David Vlok

Plot: Joe Armstrong (Dudikoff) a drifter conscripted into the U.S. Army to avoid going to prison finds himself drawing on his ninjutsu training when his unit are caught up in a plot to steal weapons from the army being carried out by the Black Star Order of Ninjas.

Review: A standout title for Cannon films which would inturn spawn a further four sequels as here they once more attempt to cash in on the Ninja trend which itself was less focused on any kind of historical accuracy and instead more focused on the look of the Ninja outfit and general excuse to wheel out all kinds of fun gadgets and weapons.

Here Michael Dudikoff plays Joe a loner who has been trained in the ways of Ninjutsu from birth which certainly comes in handy when he’s required to pulls out these skills throughout the film and despite not being a trained martial artist tapped into the James Dean vibe that Cannon films wanted after audiences struggled to get on board with the idea of a female ninja in the equally cult “Ninja 3: The Domination”. Certainly Dudikoff nails that James Dean persona of the loner with a chip on their shoulder but then here Dudikoff is far from the most expressive of actors and for some reason seems to have the same expression throughout. Even at the end were he is the hero surveying the smouldering remains of the battlefield does he not crack a smile and instead maintains the same gruff expression.

Thankfully what he might lack in expressions he does make up for in terms of his abilities as an action star even though he didn’t have any martial arts skills at the time of filming unlike his co-star Steve James which turned into something of an issue between the two with Dudikoff not wanting to be shown up with James requesting that his fight scenes be filmed on the opposite side of the compound to Dudikoff to avoid further problems. The pair would eventually squash their issues halfway through the production but watching the film you could easily believe that Dudikoff was a trained martial artist especially when you look at scenes like the sparing session between Dudikoff and James. James though makes for a great co-star and much more than a sidekick which is character had originally been written as and thanks to James changing a lot of the dialogue which was one of the main conditions of him agreeing to do the film and certainly it makes him much more of his own heroic character especially during the final showdown were he gets to fight his own battle.

The action throughout while perhaps lacking in any kind of logic especially when you get multicoloured ninja’s but it still manages to be enjoyable as a popcorn action flick and with it’s high bodycount and especially during the finale which features a ninja vs ninja showdown between Dudikoff and the head ninja played by Tadashi Yamashita in a fight which is a mixture of the pair trading Ninja gadgets (which include wrist lasers!!) while simultaneously engaging in an obstacle course. Needless to say this film more than delivers in mindless fun.

Perhaps having some kind of expectation going into this film, seeing how its an American Ninja movie perhaps made me view this in a more forgiving light, but when approached with the view point of just having fun with the movie it certainly delivers while the tight runtime which dedicates a large portion to action scenes equally helps and really makes me keen to see what else the series has to offer.

Monday, 26 February 2018

Pedicab Driver

Title: Pedicab Driver
Director: Sammo Hung
Released: 1989
Starring: Sammo Hung, Max Mok, Nina Li Chi, Fennie Yuen, Suen Yuet, John Sham, Billy Chow, Lau Kar-Leung, Sun Yueh

Plot: Lo Tung (Hung) and his friend Malted Candy (Mok) are pedicab drivers working in 1930’s Macao while hoping to win the hearts of their respective love interests which soon leads them into unwanted attention from the local gangster Master 5 (Sham)

Review: When I cast my mind back to the early titles which first got me into Martial Arts cinema there are the obvious classics like Jackie Chan’s “Police Story” and Bruce Lee’s “Enter The Dragon” but it was this film which first introduced me to the unlikely superstar Sammo Hung who despite being on first appearances looking like a parody of the traditional kung fu hero with his portly physique but as he proves throughout this film (not to mention his extensive career) he is more than capable of putting together some jaw dropping action scenes which is perhaps one of the reasons this film is held in such high regard by fans of Martial Arts cinema.

Blending comedic slapstick with hard hitting action scenes right from the start as Lo Tung and his friends engage in a tea house brawl with a group of rival pedicab drivers which includes light tubes being branded like lightsabers, while the number of people involved in this opening brawl is quite staggering when you look at how well choreographed the sequence is and only added to further by the brief appearance by Eric Tsang as the cleaver welding restaurant owner.

While the film certainly has it’s comedic elements largely provided by Hung as he battles the lecherous old baker Fang (Yueh) for the affections of Ping (Chi) who works for his aunts bakery. This plot line is perhaps played with alittle too much Benny Hill style humour which does make Ping suddenly falling for Lo Tung more than a little surprising especially when she doesn’t seem to really care for him. The darker elements however come with Malted Candy’s pursuit of Hsiao-Tsui (Yuen) who he doesn’t realise is also a prostitute owned by the gangster Master 5.

Considering how light hearted the film is in the first half its actually quite a shocking switch in tone that the film suddenly takes when it comes to Malted Candy’s romance, which at one point see’s him and his friends throwing drinks at her and generally treating her as being below them, even though she only became a prostitute to pay her sick father’s medical bills and now is trying to buy out her contract. Certainly on the first watch its a jaring shift in tone which does take you out of the film, especially considering how until this point the film has been playing things in a comedic slant.

As problematic as the plotting for the film might be the real draw is the action sequences which unquestionably more than deliver here. For those of you have never seen a Sammo Hung movie this more than showcases his talent with not one but three standout fight sequences for him as the first see’s him battling with poles the head of a gambling house played by another legend Lau Kar-leung who despite being setup for a return in the finale bizarrely never returns. We also get to see him battling Master 5 and his knife welding goons in the finale which also shows him demonstrating his usual surprisingly limber move set which is still jaw dropping to watch and worth watching the film for alone.

For some bizarre reason this film is notoriously difficult to find and only further argues the point for hanging onto so many of my VHS tapes, though why this film has not been given a better release is really quite baffling, especially when so many fans proclaim it as a high point in his career. True it might suffer from some sudden shifts in tone and questionable plotting but the action scenes alone make this one worth taking the effort to hunt down.

Friday, 23 February 2018

Island of Death

Title: Island of Death
Director: Nico Mastorakis
Released: 1977
Staring: Robert Behling, Jane Lyle, Jessica Dublin, Gerald Gonalons, Jannice McConnell, Nikos Tsachiridis

Plot: Christopher (Behling) and Celia (Lyle) are enjoying a break on a small Greek island, while pursuing their favourite pastimes, which unfortunately for the locals are sex and violence, meanwhile Inspector Foster (Gonalons) is hot on their heels.

Review: Probably the least well known of the video nasty list, yet arguably the most notorious seeing how it only got taken off the list here in the UK last year, still good things come to those who wait which this film might be anything but, but still I think it’s easy to say that this is possibly one of the most explicit movies to have made the list, especially as it is essentially a constant stream of soft core porn, nudity and violence, with only the most paper thin of plots to string the scenes together, which is hardly surprising when Director Mastorakis seemingly had two goals when he set out to make the movie and that was to first make himself as much money as possible, while the second was to make the most violent and perverse film possible after after being inspired by “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre”, well more specifically he was inspired when he found out just how much money Tobe Hooper was making from it.

Opening with Christopher buried up to his waist in what will later be revealed to be a pit of lime while Celia watches and laughs mockingly we get our first taste of Christopher’s travel documentary esq voice over which continues to appear randomly through the film as the film now cuts back to a few days earlier as Christopher and Celia arrive on the unnamed small Greek island looking like any normal happy couple. Needless to say we are just about fifteen minutes before they are having sex in a phone box while he phones their mother…..yes that’s right they are also brother and sister (though confusingly at times she is also referred to as being his cousin) and really don’t seem to care much about the incestuous nature of their relationship. So after that surprising opening, you would think that Mastorakis might have blown his load early, until Christopher having had his attempts at getting some morning fun rejected instead relives his frustration with a passing goat before graphically killing it in what is unsurprisingly the most talked about moment in the film.

This murderous duo are almost polar opposites to each other when it comes to thier motives, with Christopher murderous tendencies being drawn from his own twisted religious beliefs, making him prone to ranting about his role as the angel of purification and how his victims have sinned as he kills, while these zealot esq beliefs of course makes the residents of the island prime targets for his campaign to purify them of their sins, especially when everyone is prone to spontaneous nudity and so sexually open. Celia meanwhile plays things like his trusted accomplice though seemingly minus Christopher’s religious rants, as she sets up the majority of the murders, as Christopher voyeuristically enjoys watching her having sex and frantically photographing her in action, which seemingly seems to be the only cure for his own impotence, especially when each of the murders are usually followed by frantic sex between him and Celia and more frantic photography of their handiwork.

There is barely a moment wasted here which is not being filled with death, gore or sex or some amalgamation of the three, with the sound of a camera shutter between each scene, creating almost an unintentional feeling that each scene is like a little violent and nasty short, a feeling only further reinforced by the beyond minimal plotting on offer here, which is pretty much abandoned by the final quarter as we lead up to the moments were we first joined the murderous duo, though don’t expect anything to be any clearer by the time we get to were we first started the film, as Mastorakis instead leaps even further into the randomness void of pure cinematic insanity which has Celia making the nasty (literally in this case) with a inbred looking famer, after he beats up and farts (yes you read that right) on Christopher which is around the same point that you realise that Mastorakis really doesn’t care anymore, let alone has any idea how to end the movie.

The death scenes are all explicit and filmed with an almost voyeuristic glee, as Mastorakis unleashes a variety of interesting deaths from the traditional stalk and slash, to the slightly more creative such as a bulldozer blade and memorably using an aeroplane wing to hang one of their victims during flight. Still none of these are shot with any sense of fun are largely just gratuitous violence and gore, which frequently makes for uncomfortable viewing.

“Island of Death” is another key example of a film which made the Video nasty list and which no doubt otherwise would have long since been forgotten like so many of the titles on the list and furthering the belief that the list did more harm than anything regarding protecting the movie going public from these kinds of movies, instead providing exploitation fans and gore hounds with a shopping list of titles to hunt down. Needless to say you can go through life having not seen this film and be all the better, especially as you won’t have wasted an hour and half of your life on this film, which left me with the same feeling I had after watching “The Human Centipede” an equally ghastly experience, which equally was all shocks over substance and like this film also soon realised that it has nowhere to go and no matter how low you sink the moral standard it still doesn’t make up for the serious lack of plotting and as such, I would recommend this only for video nasty completists and celluloid curiosity seekers only.

Wednesday, 7 February 2018

Brawl In Cell Block 99

Title: Brawl In Cell Block 99
Director: S. Craig Zahler
Released: 2017
Starring: Vince Vaughn, Jennifer Carpenter, Don Johnson, Udo Kier, Marc Blucas, Tom Guiry

Plot: Bradley Thomas (Vaughn) a former boxer and drug mule finds himself drawn back into his old life when he is laid off from his job at an auto-repair company. However when a pick up gets botched he finds himself imprisioned and with a debt to repay to his former employer Eleazer (Mucciacito) who has now kidnapped Bradley’s wife Lauren (Carpenter). Now Bradley has to assassinate a fellow inmate being held in a maximum security facility.

Review: Perhaps if Tarantino had not been on his own kick to revitalise the Western genre with “Django Unchained” and “The Hateful Eight” we would perhaps see director S. Craig Zahler in much more of a mainstream light especially with his own take on the Western with “Bone Tomahawk” memorably bringing cannibals to the wild west while somehow managing to combine intelligent plotting with jaw dropping violence and now with this film he attempts to do the same for the prison drama.

Continuing the recent move into more serious fare for Vince Vaughn following his memorable turn on the largely forgettable second season of “True Detective”. Here Vaughn is very much the velvet glove inside the steel fist as he plays the hard hitting Bradley who thinks little of the brutal damage he inflicts on those who stand in his way and this is after we’ve seen him dismantle his wife’s car with his bare hands after he discovers that she has been cheating on him. At the same time he’s not just some mindless psychotic thug with his soft spoken and straight to the point attitude while frequently insisting he’s called Bradley and not Brad which makes him a very much a different sort of character than you would expect, especially considering the journey that we follow him on as he has to get from his initial imprisonment at a medium security facility to the maximum security facility of Redleaf by essentially beating the living hell out of anyone he can.

On equally strong form are the supporting cast which see’s Udo Kier as the go between from Bradley’s former employee and whose dark threats regarding the fate of Bradley’s wife in perticular the fate of their unborn child which hints at the violence to come. Don Johnson is on equally great form as Warden Tuggs who also uses the threat of violence and the generally dire conditions of his prison and much like Bradley plays against type as he constantly retains an air of cool, even when the situation around him is getting increasingly out of control never giving us the balistic meltdown we expect him to be building towards.

Despite the premise this is far from he all out action fest that you might expect. Yes there is certainly a lot of action here with some incredibly shot and wide framed brawls really making the most of Vaughn’s boxing training he undertook for the role but much like with “Bone Tomahawk” Zahler teases out these moments, spending the first hour establishing his characters and the botched drug deal which leads to Bradley being incarcerated but its never boring especially with Zahler showing the same kind of flair for dialogue as he has for violence

Shot with an intentional grindhouse eye for violence here it’s most jarringly cartoonist in how its approached with arms being broken and noses blooded it only gets worse when Bradley finally reaches the titular cell block 99 located in the depths of Redleaf and were order is maintained through the use of shock belts and less than humane treatment of the inmates considered problematic to be sent down there. Unquestionably these moments are cringe inducing and even slightly nauseating in places thanks to the fantastic sound design which really makes you feel the full impact of these moment. However compared to the superhero style of action and quick cuts its almost refreshing to see how Zahler holds back and just shoots the action almost from the view point of the onlooker. Yes Bradley might be overpowered in the damage he’s able to inflict with no real explanation as to how he’s able to achieve some of these almost superhuman acts of violence.

As of now Zahler might be one of the few directors alongside Richard Kelly, The Soska Sisters or Quentin Tarantino who I’m excited to see what they do next which at the time of writing is the equally evocatively titled “Dragged Across the Concrete” which will see him taking on the police procedural which after seeing his first team films has me only the more excited to see what other dark delights are yet to come.

Friday, 2 February 2018

My Wife Is A Gangster

Title: My Wife Is A Gangster
Director: Jo Jin-Kyu
Released: 2001
Starring: Eun-Kyung Shin, Ahn Jae-mo, Park Sang-myn, Kim In-kwon, Jang Se-jin, Yeon Jung-hoon, Lee Eung-kyung, Kim In-mun, Gye-nam Myseong, Shin Shin-Ae

Plot: Eun-jin is a high ranking gangster in the Korean Mafia who suddenly finds herself being forced to find a husband to forfill the wishes of her dying sister who much like Eun-jin’s new husband has no idea of her ties to the criminal underworld.

Review: The first film in a trilogy, this action comedy is something of a double edged sword as here we get solid action sequences alongside the comedic attempts of Eun-jin to play both a wife and continue her role as a crime boss. Now this is not exactly the most original of plots especially as there have been a slew of comedies based around one party trying to hide their actions from their significant other, much less ones based around a character having to act against their general personality.

Opening to a rain drenched fight between two rival gangster clans we are introduced to Eun-jin or more her legend as Mantis who easily dispatches her gangster foes using her preferred weapon of choice can be best described as a pair of scissor blades.  Of course even without her unleashing bladed death Eun-Kyung Shin has just as much of an intimidating presence when she’s just drinking tea and reading the newspaper with Director Jo Jin-kyu thankfully playing things largely subtle as he prefers instead to play up her tough and largely cold persona which needless to say makes her attempts at finding her softer side only the more amusing.

Predictably a lot of the humor is derived from Eun-jinn attempting to play the dating game and find her softer side, initially though some interesting advice from the make up artist that her henchmen find to help her find a more feminine side to her look.  It’s a chance encounter though that she meets future Kang Soo-il (Park Sang-myn) who is astonishingly clueless about his wife’s criminal activities not to mention extremely accepting of her cold demeanor as any attempts her make to romance her usually end with him being kicked comedically across the room.

Adding to the comedic element are her loyal henchmen who are drawn into the attempts to find her a husband while at the same time mainly relying on the resources open to them as seen by them filling up the church with hostesses from their karaoke bars and fellow mobsters. Thrown into the mix is the cousin of her henchman, who fresh from the country has big ideas about being a mobster but zero clue of how he’s supposed to conduct himself let alone the fact that his preferred weapon of choice is a the shin bone from a horse really speaks volumes about him while at the same time largely being played for laughs.

Were the comedy tends to fail or perhaps just gets lost in translation are usually with the scenes between Eun-jin and Kang Soo-il with him trying to undress her while she is asleep or her suddenly being tasked with having a baby taking to essentially raping him as she forces him to continually have sex with her in her attempts to get pregnant. Thankfully the comedy and action of other scenes make up for these awkward moments which make it easier to stomach.

In a Jackie Chan vein the action sequences blend perfectly alongside the comedic moments with Eun-Kyung Shin showcasing some incredible fighting ability, while the variety of these set pieces choreographed by Kim Won-jin  which include a knife fight in a field being shot almost like a showdown between two samurai and a warehouse gang fight really giving the kind of action I wasn’t expecting from such a largely comedic film.

An entertaining watch if for a few tricky comedic moments, the blending of styles works perfectly here while ending on a sequence which had me eager to check out the sequel.

Tuesday, 23 January 2018

Atomic Blonde

Title: Atomic Blonde
Director: David Leitch
Released: 2017
Starring: Charlize Theron, James McAvoy, John Goodman, Til Schweiger, Eddie Marsan, Sofia Boutella, Toby Jones, Roland Møller, Jóhannes Jóhannesson             
Plot: It's 1989 and days before the collapse of the Berlin Wall, MI6 agent Lorraine Broughton is dispatched to recover a microfilm that contains the details of every intelligence agent on both sides of the Cold War active in Berlin, only to soon discover that she’s not the only one who wants to find it.

Review: I’m frequently surprised by what films are adapted from graphic novels with “Road to Perdition” and “A History of Violence” being prime examples and this is certainly the case for this film which is adapted from “The Coldest City” by Antony Johnston which has since the release of the film been renamed “Atomic Blonde” to strengthen the connection to the film.

While the idea of Charlize Theron being an action star might seem like a new direction for her career following on from show stealing turn as Furiosa in “Mad Mad: Fury Road” but at the same time it could be argued that she’s had this edge to her career since turning up in the problematic yet surprisingly not terrible remake of “The Italian Job” or “Promethus” were she’s seen doing push ups when she leaves her cryo-pod while her fellow crew mates are too busy throwing up. Needless to say much like Linda Hamilton she really is the hidden gem of an action heroine as she certainly proves here as she teams up with Director David Leitch who here minus his “John Wick” co-director Chad Stahelski is clearly attempting to continue in his efforts to re-invent the modern action movie.

While it might be sold on the premise of being a female John Wick a moniker that is almost as cringe-worthy and lazy as Hayao Miyazaki being refered to as the “Disney of Japan”. Sadly this really is not we ultimately end up getting here despite Theron efforts to really deliver something special and to her credit she really is one of the few remarkable things about this film, more so when her performance was the only thing I really wanted to save while the rest of the film just left me wanting to just tear it down to the studs and start over.

For Theron this film is something of a passion project and from her performance it’s certainly clear with her training for the film which saw Theron not only cracking two teeth but also sparring with Keanu Reeves who at the time was also gearing up for “John Wick 2”. When you see them results of her hard work on screen you really have to commend her hard work especially when it adds a sense of realism to her performance. More so when it comes to the action scenes which much like “John Wick” certainly have a kinetic flow to them as well as a touch of realism as her character is frequently beaten up and blooded from each encounter while being shown taken ice baths to deal with the injuries so that she can drag herself through to the completion of her mission. If anything it was these action scenes that I wanted to revisit more than the confusing plotting surround them.

The idea of setting the film during the cold war might seem refreshing it really doesn’t give the film much outside of providing a significant event to set the finale against. More so when going into the film I had no idea that it was even supposed to be set in the late 80’s instead believing that I was going to be watching Theron kicking ass in a post Soviet Russia especially seeing the random ass get up of fellow agent David Percival played here by an underwhelming James McAvoy who I ended up wishing they’d cut from the film or better still just have Joaquin Phoenix reprise his performance from “Buffalo Soldiers” whose character is what Percival essentially is once you remove the spy antics. Sadly due to his significance to the plot we are lumbered with him.

Elsewhere we get do get smaller and more effective performances from Toby Jones who plays Theron’s MI6 superior and much like John Goodman who plays his CIA counterpart is someone I never really tire of showing up in surprising places like this, but here he is really one of the few performances that I wanted to see more of here.

Ultimately the downfall of the film can be found in the plotting which packed with double agents and the inevitable double and dare we say triple crosses end up turning into a confused mess as the relevance of certain characters becomes all the more questionable the more twists that are added while others such as Sofia Boutella’s French agent Delphine are given things to justify their presence in the story which in the case of Delphine seems mainly to provide an unrequited lesbian sex scene between her and Theron which like so much of the padding here added nothing to the story bar some brief titillation, even though the film makers have been quick to defend her role as being a way to humanize Theron’s character despite the fact we are shown numerous shots of her pining for her lover and fellow agent we see being killed at the start of the film.

Soundtrack wise it’s as predictable as to be expected as the usual 80’s pop hits are dusted off because seemingly we can’t have any mention of the cold war without Kaleida’s “99 Luftballons” working its way in there while George Michael’s “Father Figure” just feels miss placed.. We do get a couple of highlights in David Bowie’s “Cat People (Putting out fire)” being used to the same effect it was in “Inglorious Bastards” with our female ass kicker putting on her make up while “London Calling” by the Clash works equally well.

Ultimately this is a forgettable spy thriller with some memorable action scenes which much like Theron’s performance will no doubt be one of the few things you remember about it when it’s over. Certainly this is a character I would see developed or dispatched on a less confused plot as this was far from the introduction it deserved.

Friday, 19 January 2018

Heavy Metal

Title: Heavy Metal
Director: Gerald Potterton
Released: 1981
Starring: Rodger Bumpass, John Candy, Joe Flaherty, Eugene Levy, Alice Playten, Harold Ramis, Percy Rodriguez, Richard Romanus, John Vernon

Plot: An anthology of tales adapted from the pages of the mature comic book “Heavy Metal”

Review: For those not familiar with the mature comic “Heavy Metal” it's no doubt a publication best known for its focus on fantasy and sci-fi stories which are presented with a healthy dose of nudity, violence, drugs and erotica. It’s also a comic which interestingly is also owned by Kevin Eastman who lets not forget was also responsible for giving the world the “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles”.

The film itself is a bumper collection of nine tales tied together by a mysterious green orb called the Loc-Nar which also describes itself as “the sum of all evils” and as we soon discover has been responsible for influencing societies throughout time and space while usually bringing misfortune to those who encounter it. Each story has its own distinctive style from the “Sin City” style noir of the opening story “Harry Canyon” through to the ultra violent barbarian fantasies of “Den” and “Taarna” which makes it an easy film to get into especially as if you don’t like one story its not long till you move onto a new one.

Directed by Gerald Potterton who is no doubt best known for his work as an animator on arguably the best Beatles movie “Yellow Submarine” here his style is just as experimental incorporating elements of rotoscoping aswell as a distinctive hand drawn animated style which brings to mind the work of Ralph Bakshi. More so when characters frequently can be found engaging in some form of bad or deviant including (but certainly not limited to) a pair of alien pilots snorting mile long lines of coke off the floor of their spaceship.

While the animation style might look a little more dated there is still unquestionably a charm to this hand drawn style of animation and it perfectly suits the stories being told much like the voice cast who might be surprising to see attached to this film and no doubt the result of Ivan Reitman being attached as the producer, but they all really play their roles well with John Candy’s voice work in particular really left me wishing that he had done more voice work as here he really shows a talent for it.

Adding to the action is a classic rock soundtrack which thankfully forgoes the usual obvious choices and instead gives us lesser known tracks from the likes of Cheap Trick, Grand Funk Railroad and Sammy Hagar which really is the kind of soundtrack you want when you open your film with a Corvette being driven out of a spaceship and landing on Earth by it’s astronaut driver (or should that be pilot). Still regardless of the setting of each story the soundtrack somehow works well with the onscreen action, though frustratingly one of the stories being cut due to production delays meant that we lost “Time” by Pink Floyd from the soundtrack.

It’s true that due to the voyeuristic style throughout the film which much like its source material is not something that will suit all tastes, but if you liked the brash style of “Sin City” you will no doubt find this film very much its kindred spirit. Yes it’s rude, foul mouthed and seemingly devoid of even the most base morals but at the same time it’s so much fun that it’s hard to draw too much of an issue with it’s frequently outlandish world view and for fans of adult animation, especially those who came up through the anime boom of the late 80’s and early 90’s will no doubt get a kick out this one.

Sunday, 14 January 2018

Boxset Binge #9 - The End of the F***ing World

Adapted from the indie comic series of the same name by Charles S. Forsman the series follows 17 year old James (Alex Lawther) who believes he’s a psychopath and fellow classmate Alyssa (Jessica Barden) who has her own issues including a problematic home life which includes being sexually harassed by her stepfather. Wanting to escape their problems the pair set out on a spontaneous road trip / crime spree.

Switching between it’s two leads who take turn to narrate the story its clear from the start that both James and Alyssa are outsiders. James more obviously as he keeps to himself while observing his fellow students as he attempts to find the perfect victim to evolve his growing psychotic tendances which thanks to some Wes Anderson style framing (which sadly isn't carried past the pilot episode) we see has until now been restrained to various animals. Alyssa on the other side of things feels that she can’t connect with anyone around her as her so called friends want to talk to each other through text messages even when they are sitting across from each other. Equally with her explosive temper and general Don’t give a shit attitude especially with her mother seemingly more focused on living her life of domestic bliss to seemingly notice anything that’s happening with her daughter.

Thrown together the series initially is more focused on wether James will kill Alyssa or not, especially as his every other thought early on seems to be having fantasies of him killing her, but surprisingly its once the series moves past this and focuses instead on these two lost souls finding themselves through each other that the story really starts to find it’s grove with the pair finding themselves soon on the run from the law after a run in with an actual psychopath end messily.

Both Lawther and Barden are great as the leads and really manage to make this unlikely relationship work though the character of James does suffer from being at times limited especially for the first half of the series were he’s essentially limited to his psychotic fantasies and while his character is more redeemed in the second half of the series especially when we find out more about his troubled past. Alyssa however remains a fun and feisty character throughout especially when she’s seemingly unable to find any situation she can’t find someone to fallout with or to subject to her wrath.

Outside of the pairs Bonnie and Clyde antics, the show receives strong support from an interesting mix of characters in particular Gemma Whelan and Wunmi Mosaku as the detectives trying to track down James and Alyssa, while dealing with their own relationship being strained by a misguided advance but like everything in this series nothing should be taken on first impressions and this is certainly the case here as well and to watch them evolve over the course of the series only makes the world more believable as characters are given ample time to be fleshed out into multi-level characters rather than just being included to give a sense of tension to James and Alyssa’s journey.

Certainly this is one of the more unique series of last year it went largely unnoticed despite receiving a strong advertising push. Recently though the series got picked up by Netflix which is possibly the platform that it needs, especially as this fast paced black comedy is still worth discovering.

Thursday, 11 January 2018

Elwood's Essentials #17 - The Crow

Title: The Crow
Director: Alex Proyas
Released: 1994
Starring: Brandon Lee, Michael Wincott, Ernie Hudson, Rochekke Davis, Bai Ling, David Patrick Kelly, Angel David, Jon Polito, Tony Todd, Sofia Shinas, Michael Massee, Laurence Mason

Plot: One year after being murdered Eric Draven (Lee) is resurrected by the power of The Crow to extract revenge on the gang who killed him and his fiancée Shelly (Shinas)

Review: An iconic cult movie for a number of reasons especially in terms of style and design aswell as the tragic death of leading man Brandon Lee in an event echoing the death of his own father Bruce Lee. More so when this film much like “Enter The Dragon” is frequently seen as the film which would have finally launched Brandon into the mainstream having previously put in memorable turns in “Showdown In Little Tokyo” and “Rapid Fire”. Certainly for myself it was one of those films whose VHS cover drew me in long before I knew anything about the film or it’s tragic and highly problematic production as I discovered it of all places in my local (and long since defunct) record store and since that initial discovery has remained a film I still love to go back and revisit.

Based on the equally cult comic book by James O’Barr who had originally wrote the story as a way of dealing with his own personal grief when his fiancée was killed by a drunk driver, while drawing further inspiration for the story from a newspaper article he'd read about a young couple who were killed in Detroit for a $20 engagement ring. At the same time it should be noted that while the source comic is still an incredible piece of work and certainly raw emotion with its distinctive black and white illustration it’s not a piece which works as a straight adaption. As such instead of following the source material’s path of unflinching violent revenge between bouts of Eric’s emotional torment we get a more traditional revenge movie yet one which still retains the core elements of the source material.

Proyas brings the world certainly to life here as he paints a crime riddled vision of Detroit were it is almost permanently night and raining, only allowing some colour into the world once Eric gets close to completing his quest for revenge. Proyas had though originally wanted to shoot the film completely in black and white and only use colour for the flashback sequences which the studio unsurprisingly wouldn’t get behind especially for what was already a risky concept. Still while perhaps not the vision he had intended this city of almost permanent midnight is still an effective playground for the story to playout in.

While he might not have been the first choice for the role of Eric with O’Barr citing Johnny Depp as his personal choice for the role, while River Phoenix and Christian Slater were also seen as being up for consideration for the part. Brandon Lee though was of course much more of an unknown talent and no doubt better known for being the son of a famous martial artist than his previous films, but watching the film now and seeing how he embodies the role of Eric its hard to see anyone else in the role and even now after numerous sequels it’s still Lee which we see as being the definitive embodiment of the character. What further helps Lee’s portrayal of the character are the moments of humanity he gets throughout rather than just being a vessel for revenge on T-Bird and his gang and while the flashbacks might be a little too smaltzy he does manage with these brief flashes of his former life manage to give us an idea of who he was before he became “The Crow”.

Considering Lee’s background as a martial artist it might seem strange in the fact that he doesn’t in fact get to do much bar a move here or there with the film being much more focused on heroic gunplay. Were it does pay off though is with his body movements and much like the casting of dancers like Michelle Yeoh in Martial Arts movies here it equally pays off as Eric is shown as moving with cat like movements especially as he prowls the city roof tops in search of the gang members on his list. The fact that he is so charismatic and hypnotic in his performance is only an added bonus.

Opening on “Devil’s Night” the night before Halloween were the city gangs cause acts of vandalism and arson throughout the city, which surprisingly was actually a thing in Detroit until the mid 90’s when it was Detroit official's organised “Angel’s Night” were volunteer patrols protect their neighbourhoods from arson attacks. Here though it’s seen as a calling card for the city’s top crime boss Top Dollar (Wincott) a minor character in the comic who here gets a promotion to the film’s big villain which is only added to by the charismatic Michael Wincott which might be his most iconic role to date outside of voicing “Death” in “Darksiders 2” and as such has meant that its always been kind of disappointing to see him frequently not getting to play more of these kinds of roles in the films he’s made since.

Top Dollar is really the perfect sort of villain for this Gothic vision of Detroit as he carries himself with the right amount of theatricality, while his half-sister / lover Myca (Ling) helps to fill in the rules for the crow by adding the subtle element of mysticism without the action getting too fantastical, which really isn’t the easiest thing when your essentially dealing with a supernatural force of vengeance. At the same time the gang responsible for murdering Eric along with his fiancée lead by the Milton quoting arsonist T-Bird (Kelly) are all colourful and unique in their quirks which ultimately become the tools of their demise and really add to this “Sin City” style world which Proyas creates here and which he would carry across to the criminally underrated “Dark City”.

The soundtrack throughout really makes the film a time capsule of it’s release with Proyas compiling a suitably grungy soundtrack featuring the likes of Stone Temple Pilots, Rage Against The Machine and the Rollins band. Nine Inch Nails also fittingly provide a cover of the Joy Division track “Dead Souls” tying the film further to the source material. Proyas also features live performances by both Medicine and My Life With The Kill Thrill Cult the later whose club performance soundtracks the boardroom shoot-out. The only real downside to the soundtrack is the use of “Burn” by the Cure which is not down to the track which itself perfectly matches Eric applying his harlequin styled face paint but rather the issues come with the fact its a choppily edited version which really stands out if your familiar with the track. Unsurprisingly the grunge / goth ascetic of the film combined with the soundtrack which still holds up now saw the film being often sold in record stores, which is certainly how I first came across it were it was displayed amongst the VHS copies of “REM: Road Movie” and “Nirvana Live Sold Out”.

A fantastic film which unfortunately broke the mould so that any of the attempts to expand the mythology through different souls either in the films which followed or the numerous spin off comics / books none came close to matching what Brandon Lee gives us with Eric more often than not characters being left feeling like they were in some way attempting to mimic his performance and or character. As such this remains a beautiful curiosity and one which like any actor who dies when they are just getting noticed if this would have been his breakout film or not. Sadly we will never know but it remains a fitting end note to go out on.
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