Wednesday, November 25, 2009

two from Nu Image: "Command Performance" and "Ninja"

Command Perfromance [**1/2]

As far as “Die Hard” riffs go this is a pretty good one. It falls behind the sequels and just a notch under “Under Siege,” but it is miles better than “Sudden Death,” the other “’Die Hard’ in an arena” picture. I’m sure there are a couple of others I’m forgetting but I think you know where I;m going with this by now. This one stars Van Damme’s sometime mortal enemy Dolph Lundgren as Joe, an ex-biker from California-cum- Russian rock band drummer who finds his unique talent for asskickery called upon when terrorists seize the concert his band is playing at and take the Russian president and his tween pop superstar/slut worshipping daughters hostage. It’s up to Joe and a green presidential bodyguard to save the day after military men and bodyguards are slaughtered by the dozens as they try to affect an extraction and are thwarted.

The most significant difference between this film and “Die Hard” (formula wise, at least, because we all know that the film is a pale if entertaining shadow of the grand daddy of them all) is the reversal of villainous intent. The hostile takeover is normally disguised as the means to get political prisoners rescued when in reality it is just a smokescreen for a heist of some sort. Here they demand money so that they have a time frame in which to work, but their intent is to exact revenge for a failed military coup some seventeen years ago that laid the groundwork for the current president’s ascension to power. Even this reversal transcends the political and is ultimately personal to the villain.

Dolph Lundgren has a keen visual eye, his action scenes are astonishlingly competent and bloody if a little too dependent on CGI blood spray. He does, however make nice use of musical instruments as weapons with which to exact bloody justice. I can’t recall ever having seen someone get stabbed with drumsticks and a broken guitar in the same film before. Lundgren even has a penchant for blue filters much like “The Rock” era Michael Bay. Also, Lundgren’s dedication to delivering satisfying violence is underscored by the fact that he brutally murders two bad guys in front of little girls and equips a third with the means to brutally murder another. That’s probably not satisfying to thei children and their impending therapy bills, but I liked it. It’s take no prisoners like.

Unfortunately, “Command Performance” begins to fall apart in the final twenty minutes. It’s not a precipitous fall from grace, but the acting in international productions is rarely particularly good, but the worst offenders are given even more to do towards the end. Screaming awful are the performances by the ladies who play pop superstar Venus and the president’s duaghters, respectively as is Dolph Lundgren’s attempt at coining a memorable catchphrase: “Rock and Load” is pretty pathetic. But as the mortal peril and desire for vengeance of the girl’s increases, so naturally does the pitch of their grating voices. The film also tries to do something punny, (a risky gambit when you don’t know thing one about Lundgren’s sense of humor (i.e. if he has one, how Russian is it, is it worse…Swedish. See “Kenny Begins” to get a gander at Swedish humor) ) but its most amusing moment comes from its dedication to stoicism. Agent Capiska, the aforementioned green bodyguard, explains to his superiors who is helping him on the inside, he says, “an American drummer” and then there is brief pause before he responds “I’m being completely serious.”

“Command Performance” isn’t all bad, it certainly commits to delivering on all your “Die Hard” clone expectations and reasonably tries to deliver on what fans of Dolph Lundgren’s recent output might expect but towards the end it overreaches…looking for a mile when you give it an inch. It plays some of the notes right, but it can be pretty rough. Next time, I want a showstopper.

Ninja [***]

Some of the clips of the film released beforehand didn’t instill within me a sense of hope, but luckily the vehicle as a whole is a cheesy, grand, gloriously violent and fun ride. I never thought that Scott Adkins had yet lived up to his potential as the second coming of anything, he was always kind of there until “Undisputed II” then he becomes really easy to take notice of, but then he gets relegated to third to die in the surprisingly awesome “The Tournament” but Ninja is finally the Scott Adkins vehicle, I suppose it also helps that he is front and center as a good guy for a change.

Adkins is Casey, the western anomaly known as the title character of an Eastern artform, I guess what I’m saying is he’s Ninja. Casey was raised by ninjas and trained in their ancient and deadly arts for twenty-some odd years along the way gaining favor with the master while another pupil named Masazuka (Tsuyoshi Ihara) became the also ran in the arts and the master’s eyes. Over the years, Masazuka’s resentment builds and during a battle to decide who will become the new sensei Masazuka takes the battle too far and tries to kill Casey. He is expelled and begins to ply his trade as an assassin.

Masazuka works for an oil corporation taking out their competition. The corporation is also prone to secret meetings where they wear hoods and brand people. They are their own fraternity of killers apparently so why they need Masazuka’s help is really anyone’s guess. I suppose being a ninja has its advantages when it comes to invisibility and all. Somehow Masazuka manages to time a target’s death so that it becomes the spectacular end to a press conference.

Masazuka still not quite over what happened to him at the orphanage vows not only revenge but to take back everything he believes he is owed which includes the school he was expelled from and a feudal Ninja suit called the Yoroi Bitsu. The Bitsu is going on display in a museum and Casey and a few others have been deemed the protectors so Masazuka leaves a trail of bodies on his way to New York and even enlists his old employers to try and kill Casey and his former teacher’s daughter (Mika Hijii).

The action scenes are pretty stellar to a one, my favorite seqeunce starts out in a coffee shop where the proprietor sells them out to assassins and the brawl spills over into the streets with guys leaning out of SUVs firing guns and then the action shifts to a subway car where some guy gets thrown through a window and nailed by another passing train. Another favorite is the brawl in the professor’s house which highlights not only how terrible shots all of the bad guys are but just how much Scott Adkins loves kicking people in the face and flipping them over.

The fights in the film are always pretty epic and chaotic, the good citizens and law enforcement finally learn not to intervene and during the final brawl which pits our hero and villain against the fraternity of would be assassins on a city street, the police circle overhead in a chopper and issue a stern verbal warning to stop and then no cops show up until it’s over. Adkins and Ihara make a great yin and yang, Adkins is stoic and heroic and even when forced to fight and kill it is clean and not done in a fashion that suggests he enjoys it. Ihara while also quiet and stoic suggests with all manner of carnage he leaves in his wake a cackling maniac who enjoys killing with great relish. They’re a good hero/villain combo.

Nu Image Entertainment who also produced the recent Dolph Lundgren vehicle “Command Performance” is dedicated to delivering the kinds of movies I spent my formative years watchig on HBO, the kind that cultivated the cheesy action junkie in me and I admire their dedeication to the art. I’m not sure how I feel about their loyalty to CG blood but I have less of a proeblem with it when used in cojunction with the blue filters their action extravaganzas have begun to favor as of late. Also, Nu Image is harvesting some of the better direct-to-video action craftsmen around. Always a pleasure to look at and easy to follow to boot. So much for hiding in the shadows ninja.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Three "the Dragon" way: reviews of the "Ring of Fire" saga

Ring of Fire [***]

Because I’m dedicated to the work of Don “the Dragon” Wilson I tracked down his other franchise work “Ring of Fire” which has more of a meandering quality to it and also seems to be pretty heavily influenced by the works of one William Shakespeare. The film opens with a number of brief fights all pitting American fighters against Asians. By and large, the Americans win most of the fights but the Asians have one really good fighter who is a heavy drinker. The guy he beats up happens to be dating a girl named Julie (Maria Ford, gorgeous and bearing a strong resemblance to Jenny Wade of “Feast” fame) who after some casual and accidental racism develops a crush on Jimmy Woo (Don D. Wilson), a doctor who sometimes moonlights as a waiter in a Chinese restaurant when the work clothes he wears get him mistaken for a waiter. I especially liked how when he finally spoke Julie complimented him on his English and he said “you too.” In all fairness, she’s blonde and he’s Chinese so perhaps these are easy mistakes to make.

The Chinese and the Venice beach bums have firmly drawn turf and battle lines, that occasionally get crossed when the Venice beachers pants a Chinese guy and he retaliates with a golden shower. Then they retaliate with a group beating and then things escalate into a street brawl in Chinatown, but before anyone gets too seriously hurt the cops show up and the Woo’s and Julie’s brother and boyfriend make plans to settle things in the ring. It’s kind of nice to see two warring ethnic groups take their troubles to the ring because those fights appear to make the war more civil.
Also, there’s a detective who likes to nose around the hospital and accuse Woo’s family of being gangsters and drug dealers but there isn’t any indication that this is anything more than good old fashioned xenophobia (which it turns out can get you killed). That detective should also accuse his family of being cooks because he would at least be right about that.

Turns out I was wrong about when they make the deal in Chinatown to finish the war in the ring, it turns out to be a ring of fire where they fight Thai style to the death. Not a regular kickboxing ring where beefs get squashed with no fatalities.

The most interesting thing about the movie is the way that Don “the Dragon” Wilson is used. Being handsome finally pays off for him because he gets to be the romantic lead and they play the opposite sides of the track, warring families romance for all that it’s worth. When he finally does fight, he’s pretty much an unstoppable machine like David Sloan in “Kickboxer 3 and 4” Also, he has tow motives for finally stepping into the ring at the end, but it feels like he is less motivated by the one that should matter more.

Julie, sadly, can be a bit of a bitch…call it a plot contrivance if you want but the woman is only half as enlightened as she thinks she is and this is after she learns the ways of “the Dragon” in bed. She breaks up with Don at his cousin’s funeral and talks about how she used him to make Chuck (her jackass boyfriend) jealous, it’s the kind of thing that can almost negate a kind of sweet romance, see also the beginning of “The Karate Kid Part II” where we learn that whore Ali cheated on Daniel. We know up front that Julie is being kind of whore-ish but she keeps things chaste until she makes a final decision so it doesn’t have the same lasting impact. For my money, watching Don D. get hurt and betrayed is like watching that shit happen to family. No bueno.

I recommend this movie, it’s not a work of art but there is better care taken in telling the story than I initially realized (I believe I erroneously called it meandering at the outset of the review). It has more plot (and no surprise twists) than the average “Bloodfist” film and it has a little something to say about race relations and knowing when to fight. In that regard it’s a lot like the excellent “Bloodfist III.” It’s also the better interracial couple martial arts movie, less stylized and also a hell of a lot less chaste than “Romeo Must Die.” Surprisingly, most of the acting is actually pretty good too.

Ring of Fire II [***1/2]

Without needing to take the time to establish warring cultures and develop relationships “Ring of Fire II” hits the ground running and opens like all the best action films do: with the hero in a place about to get robbed. Julie (Maria Ford, looking even more bangin’ as a redhead) is all smiles because Jimmy just proposed to her and now they’re deciding what kind of honeymoon they’d like to take. Outside a group of thugs are getting ready to rob the place and inside Julie is talking about wanting to go someplace exciting, not knowing that the jewelry store they’re in is about to get hella awesome. So the thugs bust in and start smashing class cases, an employee trips the alarm and with what little time they have left they start snatching up rings, but one man picks the wrong ring. He wants Don D.’s wife’s ring, she says no and he slaps her, Don D. puts him through a window and Julie gets non-fatally shot. Say what you will, but Julie has a fantastic gift for dulling even the deadliest weapons. Except for Don, he’s a weapon she’s going to need.

Since this is a sequel most everyone is back including Brad (the ex-boyfriend), her brother and all of Johnny’s cousins (not the dead one though) and they all seem to have miraculously squashed their beef. That’s what you do though when mortal enemies have peaceful relatives that fraternize with each other, you backburner shit. Or you grow the fuck up. You have to give the people that matter to the people that matter to you a fair shake and also we’re the sum of our experiences so if it wasn’t for all that stuff that went down in part one nobody would care about each other.

The bad guys rather quickly (even in movie time) come looking to settle up with Johnny, his girlfriend gets kidnapped and the main villain Kalin has gone “underground” where a bizarre subculture of gangs exist and Johnny must fight his way through them “The Warriors” style to get to his girl. The gangs wear outrageous shit like hockey masks and a fight with them is lit entirely by swinging flashlights (it’s not a well lit fight but it’s not nearly as aesthetically ugly as one would think) another guy wears shoulder pads with bizarre decorations on them (as far as I could tell he might’ve fancied himself a samurai), but the lead gang looks like a six member version of Kiss without the face paint, but also with a dash of the leather daddy from the Village People and a shade of whatever it is that Dolph Lundgren’s get-up in “Masters of the Universe” was.

The action, choreographed by Art Camacho, is the best that has ever been in a Don D. Wilson movie, the group fights are generally pretty solid. Eric Lee’s Kwong gets the best fight when he takes on the shoulder pad gang after being spearated from all of his friends and even the second best when he fights an overly muscular Asian woman that he gropes, humbles and probably even beds in a span of five minutes. I think a small dose of the credit should go to the screenwriters who keep all the good guy separated for most of the movie so that each character has their moment to shine. Camacho does utilize the distinct characteristics of his three main fighters, Wilson is pure determination and rage, Kwong’s fights take advantage of how unimposing he is physically by arming him with weapons and then having him disarm his opponents with both humor and unexpected agility. Ian Jacklin as Kalin conducts cage fights while waiting for Woo to fight his way to him and the setting matches his raw animal brutality. Nice work on all fronts.

Outside of the martial arts, the exploding automobiles are done to glorious excess because just when you think they’ve exploded all that they possibly can the audience is graced with another glorious burst of flame.

An aside: in their determination to be as excellent as “Bloodfist III” we get the great Sy Richardson from “Colors” and “Repo Man” as Don D’s escort through the underground. Is he a better sidekick than Richard Roundtree? The answer to that determines which movie is the true champion of Don D’s filmography.

This film is a pretty unexpected departure from the first one and I have to admit that I pretty much loved it. How can you not, when was the last time you didn’t like a movie that took place underground and with bizarre subterranean sub-cultures. Yeah, I didn’t think you’d be able to answer.

Ring of Fire 3: Lion Strike [***]

Unlike with the “Bloodfist” sequels they didn’t bother to arbitrarily attach the words “Ring of Fire” and then a number to the title “Lion Strike” which is weird because it wouldn’t be arbitrary in this case, it would, in fact, be necessary because this is the third time that Don D. Wilson has played Dr. Johnny Wu. Even weirder than not doing the necessary number thing is the fact that Johnny Wu isn’t married and has a kid and the detective who was always accusing his family of being criminals is suddenly treating him like a stand-up guy and not someone he is always leery of. Is there some other Chinese Dr. Wu who knows martial arts and the same detective that I am unaware of? (Actually, it turns out this movie does take place in a distant future and Julie died in a car accident not too long after giving birth to their son) I like this new Johnny Wu, though. The brand new Wu takes on a gang of gun-toting doctors and nurses who have infiltrated the hospital where he works to break some mobster out of police custody. Wu and some other martial arts doctor (played by Timothy D. Baker of “Bloodfist II” and “No Retreat No Surrender” fame) are sparring on the roof when the shit hits the fan, they go inside to check on the old man and karate doc two gets shot. Wu springs into action throwing sidekicks and roundhouse kicks, shooting people in the legs and the head. He takes out seven people in one stretch outruns an old man shooting at him with a machine gun from a helicopter and dangles off the side of a building with one arm while he shoots at the chopper until it explodes in mid-air. As much as I miss the old crew after spending two movies to establish the bonds of love and brotherhood he had with his wife and family in the first two films I appreciate how much they’ve done in the action department to make up for those choices.

After the spectacular opening, the plot such as it is involves various mafia type organizations the world over coming together over black market nuclear weapons. Shortly after this partnership is established the mafioso is robbed of money and animportant diskette containing sales data of black market weaponry (one of that gang is played by Michael Jai White, but he doesn’t live long enough to do anything spectacular). A chase ensues and when the good doctor Wu finds himself saving the only surviving robber their bags are accidentally switched leaving the doctor with sensitive information he is unaware of.

Wu takes a weekend vacation with his son to a cabin in the woods where they plan to fish and bond and stuff when Wu meets cute with the park ranger lady (Bobbie Philips) after saving her from being harassed by a gang of punks. The scene is clearly meant to establish some of her skills as ex-Army, but I like the moxie the film shows in being able to throw characters into extra unrelated to the plot action sequences. Anywho, after this fight Ranger lady comes to dinner and the mafia finally figure out where Johnny is. They get to have a nice peaceful date, though before they get interrupted.

The rest of the movie is spent with Wu and female park ranger running around the woods disarming bad guys and kicking the shit out of them and setting the occasional booby trap.

I have to admit that the movie is well paced and acted but lacks the bizarre heights of invention of the second film, the stamp of Richard W. Munchkin (co-writer and director of the two previous films) is sorely missed because I think he really could’ve taken this film to some wonderful new heights. That being said the “Ring of Fire” legacy remains largely untarnished, I miss the old gang but Wu’s kid kind of makes up for all of that. When his dad and the park ranger get into a fight right in front of them he mimics them by beating up on a bag of groceries simultaneously. He also wakes up aqnd does a fist pump when he sees them kissing because he thinks it means he’s getting a new mom. Truth is, it doesn’t mean shit other than that they kissed. But Dr. Wu is nothing if not a forward guy, so maybe his son just has it in him to make those ridiculous leaps where every little gesture means a house in the suburbs with mom, dad, two point four kids and a dog. The bad guys aren’t the only ones thinking nuclear except this kid is just thinking about families. The kid is also pretty well adjusted for someone whose house was just shot up and who was kidnapped after the old man babysitting him was murdered.

I liked it though, the whole franchise was pretty soild. It didn’t last long enough to wear out its welcome and it works as both entertaining action pictures and a testament to Don D. Wilson’s charisma.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Fists of blood, heart of Dragon: reviews of the "Bloodfist" saga

Bloodfist [*]
I think “Bloodfist” is a better effort than director Terrence H. Winkless’ own “Rage and Honor,” which is pretty deficient on both rage and honor, because it has both blood and fists. However, the film still fails to live up to any expectations you may want to impose on it by virtue of its title: I think it would be nifty if this movie were about lesbian kickboxers because a bloodfist sounds both painful and sexy at the same time, but it’s only about regular kickboxers and martial artists. Lame.

Don “the Dragon” Wilson plays a guy named Jake whose brother was killed in Manila not long after killing his opponent in a martial arts tournament. Jake goes to Manila to claim the body (which has already been cremated) and he meets up with an old friend who looks like the Todd from “Scrubs” and has a real gift for making me think that he was semi-retarded for the first half of the movie. He also meets an old trainer named Kwong (Joe Mari Avellan) whose brother died in the tourney and they become friends. He looks like Sammo Hung, but his English is great so he isn’t really in the business of spitting out platitudes instead to get them to spar seriously he tells Todd that Jake fucked his sister all afternoon. He’s a classy guy.

Jake will find his brother’s killer by entering a martial arts tournament and having the killer revealed to him in time. A move that begs the question(s): How many tournaments and how often do they have them in Manila? Would you be pissed if the guy who killed your brother was actually a guy that you beat with one punch? It doesn’t happen but wouldn’t it be a real motherfucker of an anti-climax? The front-runner is a guy named Chin Woo (Chris Aguilar) who hails from the mean streets of Vietnam, kills everyone he fights and eats flies when they have the audacity to come near him. He’s like a less imposing version of Bolo from “Bloodsport” and he even has a scene where he stomps on some guy’s face to finish him off then pulls his bandana off and screams in triumph.

The tournament aspect of “Bloodfist” is pretty lackluster, none of the fights are fun, people just flail about until someone gets hit. Winkless has a gift for misusing people with natural abilities, for example, the most engaging thing about Billy Blanks is his Afro-mullet.

There are some small touches I like here and there, though. Experienced fighters pulling their punches and running a con on people in a public place usually to gain information but sometimes to steal money off a poker table seems like it is falling out of fashion and somebody needs to bring it back, stat. I also like some of the slow motion Winkless employs in the film— a woman doing rooftop aerobics in slow motion and during the climax when Jake’s buddy Hal reveals who the villain is in a slo-motion “NOOOOO!” voice but he explains everything about the guy.

I don’t hate “Bloodfist” but I think that Terrence H. Winkless lack of understanding of the words awesome and engaging certainly makes him the kind of martial arts filmmaker that can put a damper on the kind of sublime highs a movie like this can normally reach if your mind is open.

Bloodfist 2 [*1/2]
“Bloodfist 2” opens with Jake Raye (Don “the Dragon” Wilson, playing the same character again for the first and last time in the series history) accidentally killing his latest opponent in the ring (upon delivery of the fatal blow an announcer says, “he won’t be getting up from that anytime soon.” Hilarious, no?) and retiring from the sport of kickboxing for good. Two years later, an old pal calls him up begging for help in the Philipines saying he’s in trouble from a guy who promised to set him up with some fights. He needs help getting out of town so naturally Jake hops a plane instead of wiring him some money.

Naturally, we learn that a few other choice fighters from different disciplines have also been lured to the Philipines through invites to non-existent martial arts tournaments or calls from old friends only to be blindsided by weapon wielding thugs and forced at gunpoint onto a boat that will take them to an island paradise overseen by a businessman named Su (Joe Marí Avellan, one of two returning bad guys from the original film, both of whom play new characters).

The idea when we get there is that, Su is trying to sell a designer steroid and he needs the world’s best fighters to get their asses handed to them by his own personal handpicked rogues gallery. A gallery that includes fighter number one (Cris Aguilar, the original “Bloodfist”’s Chin Woo), guy who gets elbow dropped repeatedly and guy who gets kicked in face. Also, Jake escapes immediately after arriving on the island so he gets to sneak around and beat people up while the other fighters actually have to do a little more of that fighting for their lives business.

While I wish the “Bloodfist” films would just drop the pretense of tournaments altogether I think this is a pretty marked improvement over the first film while still failing to live up to its potential. I like how closely Jake follows behind the guards when sneaking around that it looks a little cartoonish, I also like how even for a badass hero he is capable of falling for some pretty simple tricks like running full speed through a doorway and getting hit by boards (he falls for that gem twice). I’m also beginning to see how if Jake Raye ever got lured to the Philipines for a third time he might not make it home alive.

Still, it’s nice to see all the varying disciplines on display. I personally thought the Greco Roman wrestler guy was amazing, his fighting style was the very definition of economical but he still spoke volumes when he moved. He also looked kind of squirrelly so to see him be so tough and serious was really cool. I also liked seeing Tim Baker (the father from “No Retreat, No Surrender”) not only get to do some serious ass kicking but to not come across like a pansy and an awful actor in the same breath. His IMDb bio calls him a standout member of the Japan Karate Association’s U.S. National Team and I’m inclined to believe it since he was the first person to figure out how to beat the super steroid guys and it usually entails hitting them from behind and moving way, way faster and also hitting their legs.

The tournament fighting scenes are perhaps the least cool, the final scene where everyone fights the guards outside the compound despite their tournament injuries is a better display of their skills and teamwork. A drill sargeant character fights with only one hand and gives a limping chase to the weaselly scientist who created the drug to begin with.

The first two “Bloodfist” films aren’t quite what they could’ve been, only a little in the way of fighting is memorable and they aren’t exactly inundating me with the intentional or unintentional laughs that I wanted, even the two bad guys from part one who return in this one miss the opportunity to do anything memorable the second go ‘round.

Perhaps the the third film…the only one I’ve seen more than once will hold up to the scrutiny of my fond memories.

Bloodfist III [***1/2]
“Bloodfist III: Forced to Fight” opens with some rather poignant sounding music and the image of Don “the Dragon” Wilson practicing his martial arts then it cuts to his character, Bolan taking some brutal revenge on the leader of the black prison gang for raping and murdering his only friend. An event that transpires while the warden is giving the press a tour of his state of the art correctional facility. This being an election year and all, the warden hands his dirty work off to his successor to keep things under wraps, which means there are plenty of prison fights but the reporter who saw the murder is simply going to be the reporter who saw the murder, nothing more.

After the death of Luther, the prison gang leader, his business partner Blue (Gregory McKinney) makes it his mission to take Bolan out while the white gang wants to make him an ally because he’s a good fighter and another gang still is divided by racial solidarity (most members are black, some Italian) but united by their love for TV gameshows and cook-outs. Bolan is simply trying to do his time, but people want him to take a side because they believe you can’t survive without choosing one but everybody is constantly throwing his mixed blood parentage in his face and letting him know that he isn’t welcome. So they’re constantly pushing him into corners and forcing him to fight. It’s so lopsided an affair that his best friend is dead, his only other friend is a pedophile people call Diddler (even Bolan calls him Diddler like it’s a term of endearment after Diddler is able to help save his life; he doesn’t seem to have a clue what the guy has done or maybe he doesn’t want to ask).

Director Oley Sassone gives us the creepy image of a little girl spinning around in circles during visitor’s day but filtered through Diddler’s vision we hear the tinkling of a music box and she’s wearing a blue dress and bathed in an ethereal glow. Oley doesn’t beat you over the head with this image, but he does allow this glimpse into Diddler’s psyche to stand in stark contrast to how we feel about the character as the film progresses. Most of what works about the film is derived from perception whether it’s about characters or situation.

Bolan has a cellmate named Samuel Stark (Richard Roundtree) who offers counsel to inmates and tries to tow the line with his cook out loving buddies but he causes a lot of headaches for the interim warden and when Blue and white gang leader Wheelhouse form a working relationship, Stark quickly makes an enemy out of the both of them. Stark is also seen as a distaff civil rights figure, urging people to use non-violent ways to affect change and ultimately receives a shiv to the gut for his troubles. He does, however, get a rousing moment where he talks about how our environments condition us to believe things are a certain way (i.e. Bolan is a racist for killing Luther and Luther can’t be bad news for the brothers simply because he is a brother) and that things will always be that way if we don’t bother to question them. It’s nice to see everybody on the same page and wanting to make it out of prison for a change. But that’s the power of Richard Roundtree, people listen to him and if there were women in this movie they’d probably fall all over him.

Either way, after the mediocrity of the first two films it’s nice to see some kick ass action scenes and be privy to an actual plot. I like how the title can be interpreted on multiple levels: you have no allies and everyone backs you into a corner so you’re forced to fight, you believe in certain things so you’re forced to fight and you want to do right by your friends so you’re forced to fight. “Bloodfist III” has a surprising level of social conscience, it rolls at a clip and there’s even a pretty funny scene where Wheelhouse accuses Blue and Luther of swapping spit which angers Blue a great deal. How dare you accuse Blue of swapping spit with a known butt-fucker. The audacity.

Either way, this is a good one, I recommend it highly.

Bloodfist IV [**]
So “Bloodfist IV: Die Trying” is devoid of some of the loftier goals that the third installment may or may not have been purposefully trying to achieve. It’s just about a crazy day in the life of a repo man named Danny Holt who gets beaten up by a red headed man in a bathrobe to start his day. Actually, he wins but he takes a pretty embarassing ass whoopin’. Then he goes on to repossess the wrong car that gets his co-workers and his daughter’s babysitter murdered and he comes thisclose to setting off an international incident...when a box of chocolates hiding nuclear weapons triggers ends up in his possession.

There are no two ways about it, “Bloodfist IV” is ridiculous and has a bigger scale than the other films, but it lacks an urgency of pace. It still manages the occasional surprise such as Holt finding a woman in the closet with her throat slit and the woman standing in front of him turns out to be a knife wielding assassin and not the replacement babysitter I thought she was. The knife wielding assassiness is played by Cat Sassoon, daughter of hair stylist/beauty product magnate Vidal and sister of third film director Oley, she’s not a bad fighter but the film sadly robs us of a chick fight between her and Holt’s reluctant ally, a lovable schoolteacher with a penchant for nicotine gum. Also, James Tolkan from “Back to the Future” makes an appearance as an FBI agent and Liz Torres from “Gilmore Girls” plays a cop, who in an amusing character touch, is always having her dinner delivered to crime scenes. The first time this joke plays out it works to the movie’s advantage because you see a cop exit a car with a pizza box and you think to yourself no wonder fake cops got to show up first, these motherfuckers stopped to get lunch. See for yourself, it all checks out.

It also bears mentioning that the action in “Bloodfist IV” also takes place on Holt’s daughter’s birthday so you know this is kind of a shitty party for her, but maybe not for him since he gets to be involved in everything. Gary Daniels (of “Bloodmoon” fame) and his awesome mullet get to be in the second fight of the movie and I have to admit that if you can start your day off kicking Gary Daniels’ ass then the FBI, LAPD, CIA and all these other unsavory characters that get mixed up in this business might want to consider fucking with some other blue collar joe. Maybe it’s a measure of how classy a guy Don “the Dragon” Wilson or maybe it’s a complete accident but its nice that when he fights a guy like Daniels or Billy Blanks it always ends with a double kick to the head, perhaps a declaration that he respects them and considers them to be on equal footing but also a warning that he must win anyway because it’s his movie. Whatever his reasons are I like to think that they are altruistic.

At this point, I’d be remiss not to say something about Don “the Dragon” Wilson as a performer. He’s handsome in a Dean Cain kind of way, he sounds like Michael Biehn and he’s perfectly believable as your average joe and while I certainly wouldn’t mind laughing a little more during these films I really respect his self-seriousness, why do we feel the need to keep ourselves at an ironic distance from the things that happen around us. Earnestness hasn’t gone out of fashion, Wilson is proof of that. Also, you can afford to ask Wilson to stretch a little emotive muscle—he can yell if you need him to, he’s not one of those guys like his part two cohort Timothy Baker who sounds like a complete pussy if you ask him to speak in anything above a whisper. So kudos to Don “the Dragon” Wilson for being that much more. True story: they call him “the Dragon” because he kicks hot fire.

UPDATE: Actually maybe earnestness has gone out of fashion, I’ll check and see when Wilson’s last movie was.

Bloodfist V [**1/2]
I remember when John Cusack called kickboxing the sport of the future during 1989’s “Say Anything” and then I remember him getting kicked in the face by his sparring partner Don “the Dragon” Wilson when he got distracted by the sight of his love interest Ione Skye. It is with those words in mind that I look four years into the future at 1993s “Bloodfist V: Human Target.”

I don’t think the choreography of the films showcases Wilson’s dynamism as a martial artist, but I think the films more or less live or die by some of their other elements: Wilson as a likeable, trustworthy everyman, the gradually mounting evidence that the less people there are in the cast with martial arts credentials listed under their names the better the acting might actually be and, of course, that the films aren’t unterested in taking up more than 80 or 90 minutes of your time at a stretch. These aren’t lofty goals exactly but they’re entirely achievable and you take the good with the bad. “Bloodfist V” is one of the good ones, just behind part three.

This time out the Dragon sports long hair (in the prologue) and is felled by a bullet to the head, but like Seagal he is hard to kill and wakes up a few weeks later with some serious amnesia (and a haircut) with no memory of who he once was. A woman (Denice Duff) comes in claiming to be his wife, he gets released and then the Asian assassins start coming out of the woodwork… the answers to who the Dragon is aren’t coming as easily; he’s got the name Mike Stanton but not much else to work with. The woman, a hooker (and more) offers to help him in his quest to figure out who he is. Gradually we learn Stanton was trying to prevent the sale of plutonium stolen from decomissioned nukes, he was working undercover for a Chinese gangster and, well, shit hit the fan.

Naturally, there’s a twist to the proceedings where peripheral characters like the pimp in leather gloves and the Asian assassins have much bigger roles. We even get Don Stark (Bob from “That 70s Show” as a good guy NSA agent) and Steve James to turn in great supporting work. Having never seen parts four through eight before reviewing them I can’t help but wonder if the scale is going to continue to grow to nearly global proportions. The first three films definitely had an intimacy to the character’s dilemma but now the personal shit for each of Wilson’s characters seems like it has global consequences for everyone.

Hands down, Denice Duff gets my vote as the best supporting female in the series so far. She’s cute sure but she’s also very forward and I admired that about her. It might not be the epitome of class to say “if your wife doesn’t come home soon I may just have to move in here” to a guy suffering from amnesia (whose wife may be dead for all anyone knows) but we could all do a lot worse fresh from a coma. After four sequels I still don’t understand why females who barely know Don “the Dragon” Wilson insist on following him through the fires of hell. He’s tough and handsome, but it doesn’t make them deadly and sexy. At least, he’s a gentleman and tries to warn them away. Still, Duff’s character brings the warmth and humor to the good guy equation that usually gets left out by Wilson’s dedication to stoicism.

There’s not really a hell of a lot to say about “Bloodfist V: Human Target” other than that it does it’s job, does it well and leaves me very little to complain about.

Bloodfist VI [*1/2]
Handily negating my belief that the less martial arts credentials you introduce at the beginning of a “Bloodfist” film the better it actually gets in terms of acting is the silly and tired sixth entry into the series, which by this point is a franchise in name only, a sort of “Die Hard” clone that doesn’t really die all that hard.

This time out DDW plays Corrigan, a former special forces bad ass turned military courier who must stop a Muslim terrorist faction from launching nuclear weapons after they take over a launch facility. This event naturally turns Corrigan into our John McClane, the right guy in the right place at the wrong time. It’s also all literally true because Corrigan got lost on his way to the base so he showed up ninety minutes later than he should’ve but never too late to be a hero. Corrigan also stops to bandage the leg of an injured bunny so you know he’s for real with the hero stuff.

When the bad guys invade they do so under the guise of lost tourists who then proceed to slaughter the people standing guard at the gate. One of them even wears an old man mask and lures one of the guards into the camper before shooting him in the throat. This man is not technically the man in charge, but balances of power shift when you kill the man who hired you. So as the film rolls toward the climax we see creative differences that reveal a motive: have a hell-bent Muslim who wants to blow up the western world and a former engineer/MIT grad who dresses like someone from pro-wrestling’s Nation of Domination simply wants to sieze the missiles long enough to negotiate himself a gorgeous sum of money and run off with it.

It also isn’t the film’s only double cross as Cat Sassoon of “Bloodfist IV” and “my brother directed “Bloodfist III” fame plays a secret terrorist who is sleeping with one of the men in charge of the launch keys the terrorist need to sieze to make their plan work. Cat Sassoon, once again, isn’t particularly well used as the makers of “Bloodfist” don’t understand female villains because the words “cat fight” aren’t a part of their vocabulary.

“Bloodfist VI” should be more fun to make fun of and more fun in general because it’s a “Die Hard” clone, the acting is pretty consistently awful across the board (DDW even has a guy he comically repeatedly kicks in the balls before discovering this man also has a glass jaw). And there is a blatantly ridiculously sexist general who doesn’t like the idea that a woman has come up with a plan better than blowing up the nuclear base our hero has infiltrated to fight the bad guys and stop nuclear armageddon. This is also the first of the “Bloodfist” films to feature breasts.

The movie doesn’t revel in its absurdity as much as the others or something, it’s difficult to pinpoint but maybe coming off the unexpected high of part five you occasionally get a little spoiled and someone has to pay the price. I’m not saying it’s better than I make it out to be but I’m definitely sad that part six turned out to be so underwhelming for me.

Bloodfist VII [**]
At this point, clearly the series has got to be wearing a little thin, but at least they manage to inject some class into the proceedings with the casting of Stephen Williams as a police captain leading the chase for a wrongfully accused Don “the Dragon” Wilson (really, is there any other kind?), er, Jim Trudell… ex-special forces bad-ass (again I ask, is there really any other kind?) and accidental cop killer.

The beginning of part seven starts out strong when a couple of guys try to punk Trudell and make him pay a cover charge, he waxes nostalgic about his first drink then brings them to their knees. He goes inside and we see a stage wrapped up in chicken wire. My mind began to wander and I began thinking about how cool a “Road House” type movie with Don “the Dragon” Wilson would be (no offense Patrick). The guys from outside eventually come back in looking for a fight which Trudell gives to them, but not before he sort of cozies up next to a girl (who leaves with him after the fight) who spends the (sexless) night with him then steals his car before he wakes up.

For a while this is a nice reversal of the formula because in films past any girl who gets into a car with handsome Don usually ends up a big part of his misadventures. The last females to cross Don’s path that never got into a car with him were villains and while Stephanie (the girl from the bar, real name: Jillian McWhirter) seems villainous at first she just wants to handle things her own way. Besides would you buy this movie as “WoManhunt”?

So when Jim wakes up and finds Beamer keys on his nightstand he goes back to the bar, gets in the car, finds her registration and drives to Stephanie’s home address where a dirty cop lies in wait. A struggle ensues and Jim accidentally kills the guy (one of the more pathetic cop kills I’ve ever seen, by the way) and he has both dirty and legit cops on his trail as a result.

The dirty cops are involved in a luxury car theft ring and they all came up in the same precinct house, a fact that real good cops like Stephen Williams put together when they aren’t busy trying to figure out who the hell cop killer/marathon runner/bad-ass Jim Trudell really is. Stephanie Williams is also witness to a murder committed by the dirty cops and despite being relocated by the FBI the cops managed to find her.

The film’s fights are relatively mediocre without being terrible, but I’ve said time and time again that the “Bloodfist” films rarely, if ever, get to showcase the strength of Wilson as a martial artist, his stoic hero bit is still as conistently good as it ever was or will be. Not many people can claim to trust someone based on instinct, wake up with their car stolen and still not take some time out to bitch about it. I guess the end proves him right, but neither the audience nor the character has the benefit of knowing that fact before the end.

“Bloodfist VII” starts off stronger than it ends: playing off memories, tweaking the formula just a little bit and even managing a nicely written conversation. It’s only too bad that it couldn’t be kept up.

Bloodfist VIII [zero]
After having courted near disaster at least three times before in franchise history, the folks at Bloodfist, Inc. have finally managed to consummate their relationship because this thing well and truly leaves you feeling fucked.

“Bloodfist VIII: Hard Way Out” starts off with some somber jazz and to the nostalgic feeling viewer this could symbolize the end of a journey, we know (especially all these years later) that there won’t be another sequel in name only to the Bloodfist franchise unless those “Bloodfist 2050” things I keep seeing on torrents have anything to do with these films. Even better would be if “Bloodfist 2050” was finally a realization of my lesbian kickboxer dreams, but I doubt it. Either way, the somber jazz reveals itself to be foreshadowing that we are about to have a wholly depressing experience.

It doesn’t start out in the worst possible way, in fact, it starts out in a grocery store (consider “Stone Cold,” “Alien Raiders” and “Hard to Kill” as examples of how this is a great way to start a movie), some guy pulls a gun and a patron tries to be a hero—most times it’s the main character but this time it’s just some unlucky son of a bitch who gets his neck broken. Maybe the grocery store victim being who he is sets the tone of the movie all wrong or maybe I’m just looking to rationalize the film’s precipitous fall from grace, but it never gets better than this. So this killer is in town to complete a job that should’ve been finished years ago and our buddy Don D. Wilson’s number is about to come up.

Don D. Wilson is (true to form) a former CIA/special ops bad ass turned high school math teacher whose past comes back to haunt him when Italian assassins come out of the woodwork looking for payback for a political assassination. They start by killing off his team then come looking for him. After a home invasion sequence, Cowan/MacReady seeks a little help from old friends in the CIA. Another surprise ambush later, the action switches to Ireland where Mac, his son and an old contact named Danielle (Jillian McWhirter of “Bloodfist VII”) start looking for answers with the help of an old rich Irish friend.

I don’t have to tell you that there is a double cross afoot because every “Bloodfist” has them except part three which is all the better for it. I also, don’t have to tell you who does it because the people who look precisely like slick, oily untrustworthy sons of bitches are exactly the ones who do it. By this point in the movie I think MacReady and the assassin from the beginning Carlo Gianini (for all the subtlety of that name I’d call him Gepetto) could’ve teamed up because if there’s one thing worse than being a political assassin it’s being a bad friend. Instead, Gianini dies in a fight that could politely be called anti-climactic. I’m also a big fan of political assassination double crosses where the people that hire you betray you, but since all the offending action takes place off-screen it really has no effect on my Achilles heel. Also, Alan Simpson is just a plain bad writer. Where the hell was Rob Kerchner (writer since part four) that he couldn’t be around to at least let the franchise limp away with a little dignity?

Don “the Dragon” Wilson as charismatic as he is, can only do so much with one note when no one else around him is even trying. John Patrick White is beyond dreadful as Wilson’s son Chris, he comes across as a whiner but also inexplicably has the ability to create dangerous weapons using everyday household appliances, he’s like MacGyver and the Anarchist Cookbook, but with a vagina. There’s even a couple of one scene wonders who deliver their lines with the same degree of conviction and professional training as the guy from “Sudden Death” who says, “You’ll what… burn my toast?” then laughs maniacally.

The action scenes are also worse than perfunctory, no flair, no fun. Choreography has never been the strong suit of this particular franchise ut this whole affair is so devoid of anything worthwhile that not even the lish greens of Ireland can mask how big a hack job this is. I can’t believe my loyalty gets rewarded like this.

Bloodfist 2050 aka Bloodfist IX aka Bloodfist: The Don “the Dragon” Wilson-less Experience [**1/2]
The first “Bloodfist” film without Don “the Dragon” Wilson and the last one ever made to boot is basically a rehash of the first film (right down to the mentor/villain double whammy) except set in a post apocalyptic Los Angeles where the only spot in the entire city that looks anything like civilization as we know it is the hero’s apartment.

Opening with a firefight, a few explosions and then a car chase where all the vehicles look like something out of “Mad Max,” the film seems to boast the aesthetics of an early 80s actioneer right down to the quality of the film stock and even how Los Angeles looks a little something John Carpenter might have cooked up in his “Escape from New York” heyday or “The Warriors.” Maybe the intention whether the film turned out good or bad was to honor these films. I guess it works pretty well, it’s definitely a fun kind of bad. It certainly made enough appeals to my “Bloodfist,” “Warriors” and “Escape from New York” loving side, there’s set design that works really well, a couple of good fights and even an absence of a great villain.

So our hero is Alex Danko (Matt Mullins), a kid from out of town who after an epic skirmish decides to visit his brother in bombed out Los Angeles (some of the exterior shots look like a fire ravaged shoebox diorama) only to find that he’s a pit fighter recently killed outside of a strip club by a mysterious black clad figure. Under the tutelage of a homicide cop/ pit fighter enthusiast named Marino (Joe Sabatino) snd his brother’s best buddy Rabid Randy (Glenn Meadows), Alex trains and infiltrates the circuit while theories are tossed around, but no really solid investigative work is done. It is all based on his brother’s prowess in the ring, his esteem among fellow fighters and the general bad ass nature of the now most dangerous fighter in the sport, the Great Ahmed Khan (Monsour Del Rosario).

The fights outside of the ring in “Bloodfist 2050” are more of the kind of prowess demonstrating spectacle we’ve grown accustomed to as our martial arts films get more spectacular. Weapons are brandished, lots of flipping and kicking in mid-air occurs but the tournament fights are more of (but not entirely comprised of) the “I kick and then you kick and I kick and then you kick” variety of choreography that was prevalent through the “Bloodfist” series and American martial arts films in general. Still it is easily the best work in the entire series.

In furthering their belief that the only thing you can do to the first “Bloodfist” film is improve it, the filmmakers have decided to make a visit to the strip club mandatory after every two action scenes, so we get some vital and necessary breasts, but we also get to address the elephant in the room: which is that Matt Mullins, a five time world martial arts champion, looks like he could be the lead in a softcore skin flick. Another genre I think the filmmakers intended to pay their respects to with this film. Mullins certainly has the physical prowess, but he plays the role just stoic enough that it’s difficult to say if his acting is better than or just barely good enough to land him a softcore role.

Also, whether we acknowledge it or not the filmmakers are teaching us valubale lessons about judging things by what they appear to be. Ahmed Khan is an intimidating fighter and he brutally murdered somebody, but he gets taken out easily by the hero… too easily to be the bad guy. The MC (perennial “Bloodfist” favorite Joe Marí Avellan) looks like an untrustworthy guy who strokes his cheek out of what looks like worry and diabolical scheming, but he also hates illegal gambling and appears to have been a fan of our hero’s brother. So we learned that these two scary dudes are actually stand-up individuals who sometimes do their jobs to excess. We also learn that the best place to leave your car in L.A. is with a blind man that carries a giant stick and most of all, just because you’re a martial arts film doesn’t mean you can’t also have some pretty decent simulated sex.

I’m also glad they stopped it here, because this was just different enough that I don’t know if I could ever let it go back to being the same thing.

Monday, November 9, 2009

We're just doing our jobs

Coweb [***]
Xin Xin Xiong better known as Clubfoot from “Once Upon A Time in China” and more infamously known as the action choreographer of the flat-out dreadful “The Musketeer” gives us a pretty servicable action thriller that handily dispatches about ninety minutes of our time.

“Coweb” stars Luxia Jiang as Nie YiYi, one time runner of a successful martial arts school now working as a security guard at a shopping mall who gets recruited by a childhood friend to be the bodyguard of Mr. He, a wealthy businessman and his wife, only to have them kidnapped on her watch and she must endure a rapidly escalating series of public fights to get them back.

The twist is, each one of these fights is captured by a security camera and broadcast on the internet for your betting pleasure. She gets text messages sending her to each fights location and then, bam, we have action. Most of the fights are pretty lengthy but only two of them are particularly great—a fight in a restaurant and kitchen with a hulking wrestler showcases Jiang’s gracefulness and limber form but what really elevates that particular fight are the camera angles Xiong employs in the dining area, sometimes shooting at the floor so we see the action upside down. It’s not meant to sound unappealing because it really works in context and it also goes a long way towards forgiving the man for “The Musketeer.”

Another old standby is the fight on a rickety bamboo structure, it takes lots of precision and care, but it’s also a great source of tension and a great place to take risks. It goes a long way to establishing your hero’s dedication along with establishing a “you are there” immediacy not every fight is fully capable of conveying.

I know I just extolled the virtues of Jiang’s graceful and limber form because she really does navigate that kitchen countertop quite well, but she’s not as instantaneously bad-ass as the girl from “Chocolate” who seems ridiculously untouchable, Jiang seems to have to work at all of her battles, she’s scrappy but not because she’s sloppy but because these fights really work her over. She never strikes me as invincible but as wholly capable of rising to the occasion and even above it.

The long and the short of it is that this film works on the levels that matter most, the action. I look forward to seeing Jiang work her magic in another film and I wouldn’t even be opposed to Xin Xin Xiong directing it. That’s got to mean something, doesn’t it?

The Limits of Control [***]

The hitman (Isaach de Banchole) arrives at the airport, he is told in Spanish, French and English that his assignment is to wait at a café for a man with a violin, he will be given further instructions by that man. His routine is always the same: wait, sip two espressos and then someone will show up. He doesn’t speak much, sometimes he eats after waiting, sometimes he soaks up culture at the museum, but there isn’t a museum everywhere so mostly he just sists and waits. There is always an exchange of matchboxes and usually a coded message inside waiting to be read and eaten. The first contact always has a musical instrument no matter the city, the naked woman (Paz de la Huerta) is always around sometimes overtly sometimes covertly, the second contact is always a woman. There are those little details that are controlled and then there is the hitman’s routine of exercising and espresso, his abstaining from sex. The Limits of Control are pretty strong and absolute.

Perhaps the strongest limit of control is the performance by Isaach de Banchole he remains expressionless, his movements are economical and he wastes no time with talking. He betrays absolutely nothing, remains celebate, his eyes only flash anything when a woman catches his eye but even then it’s only a brief glimmer before he settles back into character…until the moment that he doesn’t. When asked by his target at the end of the film how he got inside his fortress he responds, “I used my imagination.” Since Jarmusch doesn’t show us how exactly this happened we too have no choice but to use our imaginations and we can imagine the carnage isn’t pretty. When the target inquires whether or not our hitman is there for revenge he says that revenge is pointless, but we both know he has made a discovery that would piss him off plenty going in to the finale. “The Limits of Control” pretty much lives and dies by this performance and maybe even this moment. It’s a wonderful thing.

Jim Jarmusch’s film pays off in numerous ways: every locale is practically postcard ready thanks to the gorgeous eye of Christopher Doyle (he of the gorgeously shot “My Blueberry Nights”), there are numerous cameos from wonderful actors, the occasional philisophical musing and the naked (occasionally transparent raincoat clad) form of Paz de la Huerta. It’s all a very Jim Jarmusch-y kind of hitman story…people talk, he listens, language barriers and non-sexual relationships with women ensue but mostly it’s about adherence to your rules. If you have the discipline this film will reward you.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Fantastic Fest review: Merantau

Merantau [****]

There’s not much to say about Indonesian martial arts film “Merantau” that isn’t complementary. For being the region’s first martial arts film in over fifteen years it seems like a triumphant return to form, the action choreography is, in a word, stellar and the film itself is, well, gorgeous. At least, the best looking movie I’ve seen since “My Blueberry Nights.”

The plot of “Merantau” is standard stuff, it concerns the merantau (coming of age journey, like a walkabout) of a young man named Yuda (Iko Uwais) who goes from rural Sumatra to Jakarta hoping to land a job teaching Silat (the martial art showcased in the film), but when the address he’d been given turns out to be under construction he spends his time wandering the streets and sleeping at construction sites. Everything changes when he chases a young pickpocket down an alley and subsequently saves the young pickpocket’s sister from a beating by a club boss which leads to a series of confrontations and the reveal of bigger villains in a tall, imposing Eurotrash slave trader and his twin brother.

The film’s main villains played by Mads Koudal and Alex Abbad, are like so much else in the film a study in opposites. Mads Koudal’s Rutgar is ferocious, but somehow calm, cool and collected all at once. When he picks a shard of glass out of his face, he uses it to cut Johni (Alex Abbad), the other villain, just below the eye and that small wound seems to affect him almost as much as being bent like a pretzel during his first encounter with Yuda. Johni is reminiscent of a smug, wimpy, less attractive version of Zachary Levi unless you put him up against a woman and then he’s king bad ass. Putting Rutgar beside Johni one begins to wonder how a man can be in the slave trade doing business with such a dangerous man and still be a huge pansy. Another henchman sees in Yuda a reflection of himself, young and idealistic once but now making ends meet as a thug. He’s an intriguing enough character that I wish I knew more about what led him to choose a less virtuous path, but like so much of the movie what it does give me is enough.

I don’t need to tell you that the fights on rickety bamboo structures, inside night clubs and on a pedestrian overpass are glorious, but it must be said that they are appropriately scaled. Not every single action scene is bigger than the next, some only build to a certain point and end without excessive escalation, something you don’t see happen when it’s time to showcase the next great martial art and its heir apparent (I’m looking at you, Tony Jaa). One fight even acknowledges a fact that I’ve been made aware of numerous times in my Harlan Coben reading, that three guys could take one well trained guy on because nobody attacks one at a time. It doesn’t stop the hero from engaging in impossible fisticuffs later but it is refreshing to see that fight end on that note.

The thing that really sets “Merantau” apart from other martial arts films is the baggage that it gives characters. An early exchange between Yuda and his mother suggests a burden was placed on his older brother that he couldn’t bear, while the pickpocket’s older sister Astri inherits the role of parent and protector when she and her brother are abandoned by the family, even the villain bears the burden of his brother’s scars. “Merantau” is about the shadows that loom large over us and how we struggle through our actions to cast them away, it’s that sentiment (and “Merantau” is pretty much slathered in sentimentality) that makes this the most affecting martial arts picture in some time in a way that goes beyond technical excellence. It truly manages to be moving by the end. I loved it.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Fantastic Fest review: The Legend is Alive

The Legend is Alive [**]

With a title like “The Legend is Alive” a certain expectation is built in automatically such as the promise of things happening that are, in the words of Barney Stinson, "legendary" (or super exciting for the uninitiated) and punching and kicking people on a grand scale should ensue (also because we've seen the trailer). Nevermind that after “The Rebel” the presence of Dustin Tri Nguyen inundates viewers with the prospect of the thrills so prevalent in that film (a cunning, furious, ruthless martial arts epic), but also that the story we see, if we buy into, will move us to our core and be something we carry in our hearts forever. Like with “A Man Who was Superman” it presents us a simple situation we must take as the gospel of the film.

Bruce Lee (Dustin Tri Nguyen) is a mentally handicapped boy who lives with his mother, a martial arts instructor, and he believes his shadow is his father. The children make fun of him and with that his mother eventually tells him his father is the martial arts legend Bruce Lee and he is dead and buried in America. When his mother dies, Bruce tries desperately to find a way to America to spread his mother’s ashes to be with the real Bruce Lee and he befriends a girl who, in the old traditional martial arts standby, is kidnapped and forced into prostitution and Bruce tries to help her. He’s a great martial artist, an idiot savant with a deadly temper, but he’s trying to honor his mother’s wishes not to use martial arts to hurt people, but he can’t reason himself into fighting these men—he tries asking, but it doesn’t work. Things get ugly…eventually.

Half of “The Legend is Alive” could have been the traditional martial arts picture viewers were expecting. It could have sated the appetites of people whose expectations went unfulfilled while still being the artsy introspective story of a guy trying to honor his mother. I was behind the film’s central lie that you have to believe for it to work, I loved the relationship between Bruce and his mother and I think Dustin Nguyen’s full retard performance was a thing of beauty. So much of this film works because I love the emotional component brought to the story, but the film’s martial artsistry figures heavily into the advertising and the expectation so as a viewer I can’t forgive myself or the film for being ashamed of the fact that it should be an epic ass kicker for the last forty-five minutes. The film does everything it can to foster this belief in us about Bruce then when it gives us the truth of the lie it wants us to do so without giving us the satisfying emotional or physical payoff we've earned. Bruce’s mother would’ve wanted him to help, but he’s mentally challenged so maybe he shouldn’t just go in half-cocked…it’s a cheat giving us a damned if you do, damned if you don’t type situation. We are firmly supplanted in a scenario where nobody wins, I could forgive it everything for being about a retarded guy and say all is forgiven, but the Thai’s gave me “full retard” action with “Chocolate” and I think her mom would’ve told her not to if she could’ve and if her mother did then she didn’t listen. She fucked people up from start to finish. Maybe I’m just spoiled, but then again Bruce Lee is supposed to be the goddamn legend and he is alive. It takes about seventy-seven minutes to show it but it finally happens.

When you consider this film is supposed to be a film dedicated to mothers you have to ask yourself: are mothers opposed to things for them that kick ass? I bet when Quentin Tarantino crafts a movie with a strong heroine he is probably thinking of his mother and I bet his mom isn’t thinking “this movie would be better if these bitches weren’t so bad ass.” I bet that writer/director Luu Huynh’s mother (assuming she is still alive) said I wouldn’t have minded if he kicked the bad guy’s butts more or sooner. Nobody would’ve minded the fighting, but bending over backwards not to be honest with yourself is kind of a problem.

Sadly, the legend is a lie.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Family ties easily severed

Mikey *1/2

I remember watching me some “Mikey” at the tender age of eleven and some details about the film have always stuck with me, electrocutions and bow and arrows and Brian Bonsall from “Family Ties” playing the titular pint sized psychopath. The movie also has some pretty hot looking women in it too which wasn’t something I really noticed on my first go around at 11, but is something that helps tremendously when the movies admirably “getting down to brass tacks” opening slows down a little so we can see Mikey Trenton’s slow burning adolescent psychopath get all heated up for another round of mayhem. Brian Bonsall really elevates things with some foreboding moments here and there where his good manners and eager to please demeanor barely mask the maniac underneath. An IMDb search reveals that Brian Bonsall beat up his girlfriend a couple of years ago and skipped out on a Colorado court date regarding the same and to be honest, I’m not surprised because he’s so good in this role and he looks like a majorly smug little prick, so I guess way to stick with what you know.

Going back to the beginning for a moment, Mikey starts a fire in the basement while his baby sister watches then Mom shows up to slap some sense into Mikey and spirit his little sister away. Mikey talks about how much he hates his mom and his family then he gets mad at his little sister and steals her doll and throws it in the pool. When she steps on the diving board to retrieve the doll Mikey jumps on it so she falls in then he watches her drown, he then goes upstairs and tosses a blow dryer in his mother’s bath then the next shot cuts to him pouring marbles on the kitchen floor while waiting to pounce dear old dad. The payoff for dad’s death scene is great because it leads to a priceless line of dialogue from the detective on the case of Mikey’s family’s mysterious deaths, when the cop sees the father’s bashed in skull and the broken plate glass door he says: “well the door didn’t do that to his head.” The answer is a stunningly obvious “no shit!” but also indicative of the sense of cheesy fun that is missing from the film to make it truly memorable.

In fact, I wish the detective had been a bigger part of the story because it is the only time the movie seems to actively acknowledge how much disbelief we have to suspend in order for the idea of a murderous nine year old to work. It can be done and it can work, but if this guy can be hear to feed off our own misgivings it might make us more apt to enjoy it instead of saying that Mikey is being too ridiculously cold and calculating for a nine-year-old. His first murders seem like a temper tantrum gone awry, I mean he’s smart but it feels different when you don’t see it building up in him the entire time. Some of his calculating moves are kind of amusing, like when he calls a neighbor (Josie Bissett) and puts the phone next to a TV playing one of his filmed murderous rampages, it distracts her long enough that he can go over and kill her boyfriend. I also like how she is set up as the final girl but a simple shove and a “go home Mikey” is actually effective enough to get him to leave. I’ve never seen a less tense final showdown and it’s mainly because I’ve never seen a killer outright give up on someone before. Maybe he really loves her.


Mikey does still manage to take plenty of motherfuckers out though and he even gets tossed around like a rag doll a little bit so you get to see some funny and ultimately ineffective womanhandling of a child. I think "Mikey" has some missed opportunities in that he never imperils other children of his own age. He’s got a buddy that he gets cross with a few times and he never even tries to kill him, but he does steal his pet frog and murder his cat and sneak into his sister’s bedroom. Truthfully, I think killing women is Mikey’s big turn on, killing the men is probably just a necessary evil. In fact, if we were gauging Mikey’s victims by the people who show disdain and disinterest in him first then his body count would only consist of women.

“Mikey” probably isn’t as good as you remember it, but if the fact of it’s existence has ever stuck in your craw then if you’re like me you’re bound to end up watching it again and at least it has some pretty bitches in it that help alleviate the unkindness of time and memory to the movie.

On a more somber note, Mark Venturini, the actor who played the detective died in 1996 and he only had a handful of TV guest spots to his credit so if you ever see this thank him for making it that much more enjoyable. RIP, sir.

Monday, July 20, 2009

You want this blood? Don't take this "Blood"

Blood: The Last Vampire (2009) [zero]

It’s been a while since I’ve engaged in such an egregious waste of bandwidth that it seems only fair and proper to tell you about it. The movie is a shitfest called “Blood: The Last Vampire” and it’s about a hundreds of years old immortal Japanese schoolgirl named Saya (Gianna, but not the one with naked pictures on the internet---she’s too top heavy for even some obviously CGI’ed stunts) who hunts demons for some mysterious government agency that goes in and cleans up after her when she dispatches ghouls. They also leave containers of blood in the fridge for her. The latest stop on her journey involves a high school on a military base where she kills some snooty blonde bitch and her fat friend while some general’s daughter witnesses it and becomes embroiled in the demon huntresses quest when she goes to confront her fencing/martial arts teacher for leaving her to the wolves. Her teacher and everyone in the bar turns into demons and then for the second time our little Japanese friend saves her ass before we discover she’s looking for a demon named Onegin who killed her guardian. Also, (spoiler) it turns out the demon is her mother, but this aspect is never milked for any grand tragedy.

If you can imagine a movie like this being awesome then I’d really like to see your version because what I saw wasn’t awesome in the least. It is perhaps the most pedestrian route you could take with a premise like this. There were moments that reminded me of “Versus” and “Underworld: Evolution” and while those films certainly vary in quality from pretty damn good to braindead kind of fun, it only succeeded in making me wish that I were watching either of those films instead. It also, made me sad that so few movies get to live up to their title. When I see a movie called “Blood: The Last Vampire” I want a film that feels definitive, like the last word in vampire movies with killer showdowns and martial arts fights but what you get from director Chris Nahon is a film that lacks any real energy, has a few cheap retreads like the confrontation with the winged creature on the mountainside road (the aforementioned “Underworld: Evolution” rip-off) and the samurai showdown in the forest (“Versus”) that somehow incorporates a childhood flashback that makes the scene hilarious. I liked the high energy of Chris Nahon’s “Kiss of the Dragon” with Jet Li, but I think a crucial missing ingredient to multi-national crossover success is the Luc Besson/ Robert Mark Kamen factor. Usually the two of them are only credited as screenwriters but perhaps they have more creative control than we imagine, even a misfire on par with “Transporter 2” has some energy and boasts production values that make it easier to label as something other than some sort of SyFy Channel product that accidentally got a somewhat small theatrical showing. “Blood: The Last Vampire” certainly boasts some incredible TV movie quality demon effects.

Also, the acting is not very good. Gianna’s english is terrible and there are plenty of other so-so performances and lots of older dudes that look like they’ve played politicians in crappy DTV stuff, but no one tries to do one single interesting thing with their characters. Maybe Chris Nahon doesn’t know English and the cast couldn’t communicate with him so nobody could spitball ideas to make things better so people kind of did their own thing and hoped all the elements gelled together in the final product, I don’t know for sure but if that is the approach they took then it cretainly didn’t work. And if they thought they had something good and just rolled with it then that too was a fail. This is not a good movie, I would not recommend that you see it on cable nor do I even feel the urge to recommend it for the completist who must see every Asian schoolgirl uniform available. I think perhaps it could cure your insomnia, but that’s about it.

Monday, April 20, 2009

One is about money in the bank...the other one is

The International [**]/ State of Play (2009) [****]

Watching “State of Play” and “The International” on the same weekend is an instructive lesson in how to make the most of your premise and well…how to not. That’s not to say that the lesser film “The International” is awful just that at the end of the day it is bracingly irrelevant. In a time, when financial institutions fail us left and right and insurance companies like AIG are performing suspect business practices the movie doesn’t do much to stoke the fires of righteous indignation.

Louis Salinger (Clive Owen) is an Interpol agent perilously close to nailing a bank CEO for funding/funnelling funds for terrorist activites and, this could be something I missed but the key difference between this film and “State of Play” is that the money may be going directly to terror cells whereas “State of Play”’s intrigue involves the privatization of the military and whether or not a Congressman’s aide’s murder has anything to do with his crusade against a private contractor.

Louis works with a Manhattan DA named Eleanor Whitman (Naomi Watts) to help bring the bank down after an investigative colleague dies after meeting with an informant poised to give the details that will blow the case wide open. Most of the pieces are already in play and the film wastes very little time in tying up its loose ends which includes political assassination and assassin assassination. The latter act taking place in the Guggenheim in a dizzying but breathtaking action setpiece that merits the consideration of Tom Tykwer to helm a 007 picture. Even better is the satisfying bloodiness of the sequence, a necessity since the film otherwise fails to work the audience up into a lather.

It’s a nicely helmed, nicely paced and even nicely acted, Watts and Owen never fail to captivate and even Owen and Brotherhood’s Brian F. O’Bryne make a nice odd couple buddy cop/avengers act. But the problem is that I keep using the word nice and rarely using words like breathtaking or satisfying. That action scene though could give some good speakers a workout and if you’ve got about ten minutes to kill that shootout really is a thing of beauty. Escapism so relevant it’s irrelevant.

“State of Play” directed by Kevin McDonald is the kind of muscular picture you should rightly hope for when you’ve got so damn many talented individuals working on any one thing.

As I’ve said before, a Congressman’s aide is murdered, he’s persecuting a private military firm and his reaction to his aide’s death is just emotional enough that people are starting to see a story in the reaction. The congressman is Stephen Collins (Ben Affleck), the new hero on the hill until this latest tragedy and his greatest ally is former college roommate Cal McCaffrey (Russell Crowe) who despite angling for a story seeks the truth more than a headline. Along the way, Cal alternately butts heads with and molds into a bonafide journalist a gossip blogger named Della (Rachel McAdams).

Starting with a youth taking a fatal bullet and another passerby being hospitalized, the questions pile up when secrets about the aide are discovered and a couple more too convenient bodies show up. Maybe you’ll be playing the guessing game, but you might just be riveted by the cast: Helen Mirren is great as a no-nonsense ball busting editor, Russell Crowe does what seems like his millionth effortless and commanding performance in a row while the less seasoned but not untalented Rachel McAdams and tv stalwart Michael Jace of “The Shield” mange to hold their own and make distinct impressions just the same. Last working as the director of 2007s “Gone Baby Gone,” Ben Affleck brings the effortless charisma I admire him for to the role of an impassioned, compassionate man burdened by too damn many mistakes. It’s the kind of role that suits him better than a starring vehicle, though I’ll confess to having missed him only once theatrically since 1997s “Good Will Hunting,” and makes me wonder for how much longer the cinematic atonement of Ben Affleck must continue.

Having seen the first two hours of the British mini, the first hour of “State of Play” is a faithful approximation of the original and with five hours left of the British version I can only imagine and will probably later attest that the 2009 film is a model of efficiency that doesn’t waste a breath in telling its story. Adding to the unqualified success of the film is the screenwriting efforts of Billy Ray, Tony Gilroy and Matthew Michael Carnahan the respective writers of “Shattered Glass,” “Michael Clayton” and “The Kingdom.” It’s quite easy to feel their stamps on the final product as Ray brings an understanding of the tension inherent in newsroom dynamics while Gilroy’s “Michael Clayton” leaves you feeling a little hollowed out at the hard fought victories that don’t make you feel any better at the end. Carnahan has played the politics game in “Lions for Lambs” and to a lesser extent in “The Kingdom” but the film’s final moments are of the breathless what’s going to happen next nature of “The Kingdom.” It’s a beautiful convergence of screenwriters and for that matter actors, directors and editors.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Uncomfortable stirrings from within and without

Adventureland [****]

Almost always favoring the subtle chuckle over the huge guffaw, Greg Mottola’s “Adventureland” finds itself in the company of recent excellent films “Superbad” and “Nick and Norah’s Inifinite Playlist” about how we wear our insecurities on our sleeves and, at least, in the case of the latter how often we let our hearts fail us. Choosing instead to be merely okay rather than take the plunge that fulfills our heart’s desires.

James (Jesse Eisenberg) is a recent college graduate who finds his life’s path pre-grad school altered ever so slightly when his father’s demotion forces him to get a summer job at an amusement park populated by archetypes such as the slutty chick (Margarita Levia as Lisa P), the Russian author obssessed nerd (Martin Starr), the damaged girl attracted to all the wrong guys (Kristen Stewart, finally, ideally cast as Em), the married handyman (Ryan Reynolds) who is having an affair with the object of the hero’s burgeoning attraction, the douche, the married couple that manage the park (Bill Hader and Kristen Wiig) and, most importantly, the guy who punches people in the cock (Matt Bush). Anyone who has ever had a job before can recognize these archetypes, but anyone who has ever lived and breathed a job will appreciate the humanity that writer/director Mottola infuses each of these characters with. It’s helpful to recognize a type from a mile away, but to be reminded what it’s like to stand on the precipice of the twilight of youth and the spring of an uncertain adulthood is another thing altogether that not many writers/directors seem capable of capturing as we get older, more cynical and further removed from the wonderful, unobtainable simplicity of life that we once knew.

A couple of moments each involving our hero’s interaction with rivals to affection: Lisa P, who oozes sex but is rumored to be as pure as the virgin snow, reveals her greatest weakness to be her concern for her injured father and Connell, the married handyman who sees Em on the sly, offers advice on conversational dos and donts of first dates to James who is currently seeing Em. Shows not only a reverence for the memories of the time, anyone with a personality or name is impossible to paint as a villain, but understands that sometimes not every flaw is everyone’s problem. In some circles our greatest failings might be our inability to keep a secret or our zippers zipped. One thing the film does and maybe more so in the case of Connell than anyone else is compartmentalize. Lisa P sees Em as the villain in the Connell situation, a homewrecker while everybody else seems to be in silent agreement that Connell can’t be blamed because men are hardwired to fuck. Perhaps these concessions are made because nobody wants Connell to be the villain—he’s a nice guy. In fact, they’re all nice people.

Connell is one of the film’s two outright appeals to nostalgia. Proof that you can grow older, have responsibilities but keep that kick ass job of no particular importance and swim in a sea of meaningless sex…until it comes crashing around you. Then there’s Frigo the guy who punches people in the dick. He’s always doing it and sometimes even more immature things than that. He’s the guy who hasn’t made it to the “D” section of the dictionary so he doesn’t know what the word delusional means, but he hasn’t even realized things are changing enough that they can be missed. Either way, his dick punches facilitate a stirring within you that you don’t always feel but when it comes about it’s intense and when it’s gone all you want is to feel it again. That’s right, dick punches as a metaphor for the pangs of nostalgia deal with it.

Greg Motolla’s “Adventureland” is the first truly great purely 2009 release. It understands a few things about longing and the unattainable. Understands even more the pure invaluability of memories and what a good bit of regression does for those who really need it.

Observe and Report [***]

“Observe and Report” is a lot like the dick puncher in “Adventureland” that shit isn’t right but what it evokes is an honest to goodness uncomfortable stirring within you. Ronnie Barnhardt (Seth Rogen) is a deeply delusional security guard at a shopping mall who finds the exploits of a local mall flasher to be his ticket to the big time. In this case, big time means a lot of things: he’ll catch the pervert, win the respect of the local cops and become one, win the heart of the sluttiest girl in the mall (Anna Farris) and all will be right with the world. Ronnie’s got two problems, though: himself and the detective (Ray Liotta) assigned to the case who doesn’t appreciate Ronnie’s impeding his investigation every step of the way.

“Observe and Report,” like most recent comedies, exists in a world just south of reality where a guy can blow a pervert away in the climactic showdown while his boss looks on approvingly and tosses him the keys to the kingdom as the guy lays in a heap on the floor. People do heroin on the clock and skateboarding punks are beaten within an inch of their lives by overzealous security. You should try your best not to be surprised when I tell you there is a scene where security guards wax hopeful about being able to carry guns instead of tazers as they fetishistically polish phallus like guns. Note also that they are cracker jack shots who go for the head, heart and genitals always.

The laughs in the film aren’t the fast and furious kind you come to expect from the Apatow gang, but the kind of laughter you elicit because you don’t really know how else to react. It’s your deepest darkest fantasies brought to vivid, ugly life but it’s honest and for ninety minutes we get to forget about the crippling burdens of social contracts and we can laugh at the horror of swinging dicks in a mall, delusional psychos in a superhero drama (trauma?) of their own making. Still, the film isn’t without an irresistible romantic impulse upon discovering that the wheelchair bound coffee girl in the food court has been ridiculed to the brink by her boss, Ronnie threatens him with death and it’s a fantastic example of the one thing in the movie that is far from dead: chivalry. Ronnie is a loving son and a gallant protector, but it’s the kind of chivalry you don’t want to be on the wrong side of. Maybe I was wrong about the social contracts being burdensome perhaps we’ve just run out of reasons to uphold them or people crazy enough to do it.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

For the children and because of them...

The Children (2008) [*]

How the hell is is that one does not like movies about killer children? Who can resist those mischievous grins when they're party to some real balls to the wall trouble like murder. Does anybody remember when Brian Bonsall of "Family Ties" took it to the house as a bow and arrow brandishing, throw a radio in the pool/hot tub certified psychopath? Maybe it's because I was a kid, but it was terrifying then and even now I have a cousin who looks eerily similar to the kid from "The Omen" remake and I dread the moments when he yanks my facial hair. Remember "The Children of the Corn" or Leif Garrett in "Devil Times Five"? Well take all those memories and hold on to them a little tighter because the Brits are about to fuck all those memories in the ass with "The Children."

Running only a scant 76 minutes, but paced and executed like it lasts as many years is set in the British countryside during Christmas and involves two families getting together, lots of screaming ass little bastards (home schooled, spoiled and nurtured in a frankly faggotty "no hitting zone"), almost as many stupid adults and one poorly reasoned explanation for why the kids are suddenly bloodthristy killers. I'll try and explain.

A little girl named Leah is sick, she's hanging out with her cousins and they cough on shit and share toys, people scream and another little girl coughs and wipes her findings on the pillow next to her, the camera zooms in on the stain and we see microbes or bacteria swimming all about. There's also the magical 99.6 on your radio dial which may or may not be a trigger for these children to start killing and then there's a scene where Leah slams a toy down repeatedly and stabs it while we cut to another child doing the very same thing to her own mother. Psychic link, radio trigger, mysterious disease? Why not all of them? It'll be more chilling if we don't explain it.

Also, everytime one of these kids runs around screaming, their parents come running to check on their children. A particularly stupid moment involves a kid named Paulie (the annoying, ugly William Howes) screaming on the monkey bars. His mom runs over to help him and as she reaches out to grab him, he keeps backing up and she keeps following him. He kicks her and she gets tangled up in the jungle gym and breaks her leg. Have any of these people for a second ever used their brain and said, "I don't want to deal with you when you're like this and just walked away?" It's a simple trick, if a kid feels like they're in danger of you ignoring them they'll change their strategy and/or behave. They might be old enough to kill you, but they're still young enough they don't want to be alienated from you yet. I can't vouch that these tricks will work on psychotic children, but they have obviously never been ignored before and it might shock the shit out of them.

Dinner table misbehavior is part of an elaborate scheme to get one of the adults alone outside and onto a sled so they can place a wagon just so that he can get his scalp ripped off by the gardening tool sticking out of the side as he sleds past. It's not exactly as visceral a moment as it could be, but Paul Hyett's F/X are a pleasant surprise-- child impalings, a skin flap that oozes blood when lifted and a nice broken leg are the highlights. Sadly, the film is edited to within an inch of it's life. Cutting away at the wrong time or providing pay offs a few scenes past their prime effectiveness.

Not every horror film can be a winner, but few waste their premise as soundly as "The Children."

Last House on the Left (2009) [***]

Another Wes Craven film hits it big in the remake sweepstakes. "The Last House on the Left" is the story of a vacationing family pushed to the limits over the course of a single day and night when they come face to face with a murderous gang seeking shelter from a storm only to walk smack into the middle of another one.

Krug (Garrett Dillahunt) is freed from police custody when his girlfriend and brother crash into the vehicle transporting him. The coppers are brutally put out of their misery and then the action cuts to the next day when the aforementioned vacationing family The Collingwood's (pa Tony Goldwyn, ma Monica Potter and daughter Sara Paxton) who after a hectic few months are looking forward to some peace and quiet out in the middle of nowhere.

Sensing that her parents haven't had much time alone together Mari (Paxton) offers to get lost with her friend Paige (Martha MacIsaac) who unwisely opts to buy some weed from a shoplifter in the store she works at, unwisely opts to stay at his motel room and get stoned and unwisely opts to get bled like a stuck pig (against her will) when we find out the dealer's father is our opening credits psychopath Krug.

"The Last House on the Left" resorts to pulling no punches early on, the early murder of the police officers is brutal and in a recurring bit Krug teases his victims with comforting images; as he strangles one cop, he dangles a photo of his children in front of him and when he kills Paige he insists that Megan offer her comfort as she dies because "her friend needs her." Dillahunt whom you might know from "Deadwood" or "Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles" is good at conveying a sort of robotic menace (I mean that as a compliment). He knows only to perform an act, every word seems calculated to lead to a certain end. Words, he understands, are a trigger and can lead to violence. Any sort of physical reaction or movement is designed to inflict pain and/or fulfill what would be a biological imperative in a normal person but is, in him, rote memorization learned from watching people interact.

When I watch films about civilized people getting righteously Medieval on the asses of their oppressors like "The Hills Have Eyes" or "Hostel" it seems like every moment is calculated to get the audience standing up and cheering by the time the hero fights back ("The Hills Have Eyes" screening I attended three years ago, elicited some cheers when Doug vanquished his first mutant baddie, come to think of it people liked it when the dog killed some of those the mutants as well) or at the very least feeling a catharsis of some sort. "The Last House on the Left" elicits what could arguably be called the correct response for a movie like this. The villains are not mutated creatures or businessmen who pay to torture but a regular roving band of psychopaths and an innocent(ish) kid. We witness things that make us want to want these people dead, but we feel hollow and nasty at the end just the same. No vindication only shame.

There are times when we die right alongside Mari spoiler! After her frank and brutal rape at the hands of Krug and watching her friend bleed to death the soundtrack is pierced only by silence, an intense disquiet haunts the audience as Mari summons the courage to run, she strikes Krug with a rock and she's off end spoiler! We see Mari taking broad strokes as she hits the water, successfully escaping, and the power of the image of the ocean as a symbol of woman, rebirth is not lost upon us then the bullet hits her in the back. We know this doesn't kill her from the trailers, but Iliadis' ability to dash our hopes so completely, to destroy the power of a symbol and never offer the proper victim a chance to fight back can't be denied. To that end, how effectively this picture utilizes cruelty is actually a plus.

Another way in which Iliadis' picture succeeds is in how it makes us feel complicit not just as people watching, but by having the Collingwood's execute a man together. Everything they do is not quiet enough to kill him; they have to improvise and when they fail to drown him in the sink they turn on the garbage disposal to mangle his hands and finally bury a hammer in his skull. Who knew it would take so much effort to kill a man? The implicit suggestion is that our darkest impulses are best left in the farthest corners of ourselves and to expose them with others, whatever the circumstance, is to expose the most shameful parts of ourselves.

Friday, February 6, 2009

Feast III: The Happy Finish [***]

After a lackluster second entry the gang that brought us “Feast” is back in top form with the third chapter of the trilogy-- a relatively brief entry that hits the ground running and made me realize “Feast II” was the breather and connective tissue we needed for an admittedly bizarre and kick ass sequel/possible finale. A few of the things set up in part two pay dividends in this entry—such as alien hybrids and pipes through the head—but a lot of the unexpected rears it’s head.

Doing their level best to survive the onslaught that started at the end of the last film our motley gang nails a few beasts then hole up in the town jail they tried unsuccessfully to occupy in the previous film. Therein they meet a survivalist named Shitkicker (John Allen Nelson, sublime) before things turn ugly and they vow to take the fight to the creatures. The gang befriends and escape to the sewers with a prophet named Short Bus Gus, who may or may not be able to control and communicate with the aliens.

In order to avoid spoiling a few truly great surprises I’ll tell you that a bizarre subculture exists down there in addition to the monsters and leave it at that, but I will tell you that the humor while keeping with the grand tradition of being “so not right” is actually funny again. My least favorite joke from the second film where a guy named Greg Swank sacrifices a baby to save himself has a long, irony laden and pretty damn funny pay-off where Greg lives through most of this film with a pipe sticking through his head and he’s disoriented, all his dialogue is unintelligible and subtitled and he thinks the surviving midget luchador from the last film is the baby he killed and this is his shot at redemption.

When I saw “Feast” in 2005 I admired the scene where a soldier was allowed to drink for free at the bar because the bartender was a World War II vet and respected what he did, it was a nice touch that felt pretty wholesome and American. The movie also had a kid getting eaten, old people getting interrogated and blown up and it was just good gruesome fun that embraced being an old fashioned bloody ass, bloody entertaining piece of joy. It also had some pathos to it, as one woman fights to survive to care for another’s child, two brothers band together to live, people had their reasons for wanting to survive and some did. It’s not easy to see that current going through the films but it is there.

Writers Patrick Melton and Marcus Dunstan like to keep you on your toes with some truly bizarre and unpredictable shit, but one of the surprising things they do is offer up a sense of fairness and balance. Things don’t always end happily for everyone as wars don’t always let heroes choose to die in a manner that befits them, but they see to it that those who deserve it and act selfishly find a way to meet their doom with unusually healthy doses of irony and agony.

About the only real negative I can say about the film is there is an extended strobe-lit sequence that stands in for the jarring shaky cam work of the first as far as bad directorial choices go and it’s frankly pretty damn irritating. That being said, I can pretty much eat the rest of this shit up.