Saturday, June 29, 2013

Tai Chi Hero (2013)

Director: Stephen Fung
Notable Cast: Yuan Xiaochao, Tony Leung Ka Fai, Angelababy, Eddie Peng, Stephen Fung, Peter Stomare, and a slew of cameos including Daniel Wu and Yuen Biao.

I loved "Tai Chi Zero." It was a modernized kung fu film of epic idea with its steam punk elements, video game inspired graphics, and quirky humor. It was fun, heartfelt, and most importantly - awesomely entertaining. This is perhaps why my expectations for the second half of the entire film, dubbed "Tai Chi Hero," were so high. This might also be the reason for my disappointment overall in the film. As a sequel it certainly hit all the marks it was supposed to with its bigger scope and more complex story, but it also strayed further from the some of the writing elements that made the first such a blast leaving it feeling like it tried a bit too hard.

When we last left our hero Lu Chan (Yuan Xiaochao) in "Tai Chi Zero," he was on the verge of marrying Chen Yu Niang (Angelababy) as her dedication to saving his life when he sacrificed himself for her. Her father, the leader of Chen Ching Xiang (Tony Leung Ka Fai) seems to think she can cure him of his ailment by training him in their familial kung fu and with a little love. The problem then remains as her brother mysteriously shows up and stirs up rumors of a prophecy meant to end the village. And on the horizon, scorned and scarred, Fang Zi Jing (Eddie Peng) is plotting his revenge against Chen Village by building an army to take there.

We can be heroes...just for one day.
What I love about this franchise, and I do understand why people would dislike it for these very reasons, is just how much fun it has with its characters and premise. The over the top abilities of its kung fu participants makes for entertaining fights, the video games inspired graphics - which in this film includes a little fighting game nod as Lu Chan has to take on a serious of disciples to find a mysterious master - are always quirky fun, and the characters are heartfelt. "Tai Chi Hero" does display these elements in full. Lu Chan gets to throw down in over the top situations with his elusive brother in law, fight against an entire army, and has a memorable finale one-on-one on top of kitchen walls against a kung fu master while the romantic sub plot is sweet in its simplicity as Chen Yu Niang begins to see his idiocy as endearing. There is a lot to love about "Tai Chi Hero" and its characters are certainly relatable.

Unfortunately, most of these are moments of a larger whole. That larger whole being this idea of Eastern kung fu spirituality and simplicity of life versus that Western need for expansion and greed. This is where the film tends to try a bit too hard. The elusive brother-in-law plot strikes too much of a resemblance to the entire plot of the first film as his torment in the hands of Chen village leads him to turn to machinery and engineering (even if his turn around in character is justifiably effective) and our main villain Fang Zi Jing seems to have become a rather 2D caricature of his previously sympathetic self. In fact, most of his screen time is spent rushing through his underhanded rise to power to lead an army and an ill-explained alliance with a Western business man who is sinisterly played by Peter Stormare (a favorite actor here at Blood Brothers and always a smart choice for a dick villain). The motivations here are either redundant or quickly brushed over and it leaves us never feeling the true danger for our protagonists.

"I know you're a villain. You have scars on your face, duh."
I must also mention that I really disliked the ending of the film. Here be a few small spoilers people. Forewarning. While I disliked the ending of the first film for being "To Be Continued" and leading into "Tai Chi Hero," this film feels like it wraps up very quickly. We get our final fight on top of kitchen walls as Lu Chan defends his claims to the Chinese government and it feels like it might be moment that's leading towards a true climax of epic proportions since we had an army battle previously. And then a narrator pops up and sort of says "...and everything was happy ever after." WHAT?! THAT'S IT?! No, final kick ass battle as Lu Chan leads a group of investigators into war against Fang Zi Jing? No falling action as we see Lu Chan and his wife settle into a regular life? None of that?! I understand that the idea was for this to be the second part of a trilogy, but with no confirmation of the finale film at this point, it's hard for me to find this acceptable. I was really digging into these characters and this is all that "Tai Chi Hero" left me? It's very frustrating.

Lesson one in Ass-Kicking 101.
Besides an ending that left me jaded and some oddly brushed over major plot points featuring our villains, I did quite enjoy "Tai Chi Hero." This franchise is simply a blast as it combines classic kung fu plot progressions, fun and strong characters, and modern flashy film making into a big ball of entertainment. I sincerely hope that a third film in the series gets made so that I am not left hanging on that ending and that we get to ride along with the lovable Lu Chan one more time at least. Don't let Lu Chan die, people! You can support the series by purchasing your copy of the film at the links below anyway. You should do it right now so that I can see how the filmmakers intended the film to end!

Written By Matt Reifschneider

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Man Of Steel (2013)

Director: Zack Snyder
Notable Cast: Henry Cavill, Amy Adams, Michael Shannon, Kevin Costner, Diane Lane, Russell Crowe, Laurence Fishburne

To give this review a bit of context, I probably should state that I've never been a big Superman fan to begin with. My brother was always the one inclined towards the Superman tale (as one can tell from his reviews of the film franchises) and I was always the Batman guy, yet I felt inclined to see "Man Of Steel" due to some intriguing elements. Firstly, it would be the film to kick off DC Comics lead up to a "Justice League" film. Secondly, it's directed by Zack Snyder who, while I'm the first to admit is usually style over substance, tends to make entertaining films. Thirdly, it's produced by Christopher Nolan. Although I have love/hate relationship with his "Batman" films - can still bring a new level of thought to the super hero genre. So what do we get with all of these unique and interesting elements in "Man Of Steel?" We get a clusterfuck, of course.

 Clark Kent (Cavil) has struggled most of his life. Despite his insane powers of strength, laser eyes, and speed, his father (Costner) taught him to keep it in check in fear that others will try to persecute him for his abilities. So he wanders as a young man, helping where he can and struggling to live a normal life. When he discovers a lost ship in the ice he discovers his past as the last of a race on a dying world. Then he learns he's NOT the last of his race, but that a group of militant rogues are coming to Earth to colonize it. Now its up to Kent to stop them to protect his foster home.

Getting out of that suit had to be a bitch.
In an odd way, "Man Of Steel" is a mash up of the first two "Superman" films with flashbacks interspersed that take the many seasons of "Smallville" and give us the highlights. I love the idea of this film. Let's humanize Superman, take the film in a more serious tone, jack up the action, and - no pun intended - let it fly. Fuck, I'm so down with that! Slap Snyder in the director's chair for some pizzazz, Nolan guiding the flick, and cast some strong elements and "Man Of Steel" should be the blockbuster highlight of the summer.

"Knock knock..."Man Of Steel." That's the joke!"
That is...until it all went wrong.

The biggest issue I had with the film was its pacing and tendency to be oversimplified while treating the audience like children. Yeah, we get some humanization of Supes with some oddly placed flashbacks of artistic intent (any random shot of something small and meaningful will do - how about a butterfly on the chain of a swing set?) that give us some reasons why Supes is the way he is, but for whatever reason the pacing here felt a bit convoluted. It sort of jumps to convenient memories when needed where we are preached to by two different fathers (the other played by Russell Crowe) before it fully succumbs to an odd need to push the film into a straight on science fiction arena. While the exposition was there, it certainly felt like exposition and it never caught me to feel for Superman. Perhaps its because the guy wanders around and saves burning oil rigs, smashes trucks when almost gets into bar fights, and generally acts like a simpleton.

And in this oversimplification, "Man Of Steel" then seems to say "oh well" to all that exposition in the second half and relentlessly pummels the audience with action. The first sequence as Supes battles a pretty creepy henchwoman I enjoyed. They throw one another through buildings, ignite trains, and generally hop around like kung fu experts on crack and beat the shit out of one another. Unfortunately, from there the action never ends. As an action fan, this should be awesome. Too bad its ALL CGI and it becomes a boring flurry of destruction, flying bricks, and tumbling buildings. By the time that Supes and the evil Zod, played to bug eyed hilarity by Michael Shannon, finally duke it out in Metropolis (certainly killing far more people then was probably necessary if Supes had just taken the fight up like a 1000 feet higher in the air) I couldn't give two shits about the action. Yawn. Seen it before for, like, the last 40 minutes, I swear. Where is Zack Snyder's knack for pacing an action sequence? Well, it's no where to be found in this CGI world of boring action. Yeesh.

I'm shocked they didn't just CGI his costume like in "Green Lantern."
Then to top it off, the film pulls out the entire 'Superman = Jesus' card. This has been a trend for Superman for quite some time and often I enjoy some of the clever techniques that writers, artists, and film makers have taken this subtext too. In "Man Of Steel," it's not a subtext. It's beaten into your skull. For the most part I wouldn't have minded it, but it's relentless here. It's like when someone tells you a joke and you politely laugh at it because it's funny. Then they proceed to poke you in the ribs for two hours and say 'get it? Don't you get it? Come on, that's funny. Get it?" YES. WE GET IT. NOW FUCKING LEAVE IT ALONE. That's how the entire religious "subtext" worked on my nerves. I won't get into all the examples here, turns out there are entire articles dedicated to this topic, and I would suggest reading that if you are interested.

"I'm staring into your film...and I see a BIG paycheck."
Overall, the acting was okay - with the highlights being the Russell Crowe/Michael Shannon scenes - and the action has its moments. Although I will admit I was dying of unintentional laughter at the entire "Avatar"/"Matrix" rip off introduction that takes place on Krypton. Something about watching a very serious Russell Crowe riding a four winged lizard and swimming through a sea of "Matrix" babies ticked me pink. Ugh. The rest of the film is a wash. Too much focus on science fiction elements and one trick action sequences to be truly thoughtful in its character work and too much serious character work to be truly an entertaining summer blockbuster. Although there are those who loved this film out there, I for one was not at all enthralled with this latest tale of Supes. The action was boring, the characterization forced, and the "fun" was lost out of the series. A massive summer disappointment is my final verdict.

Written By Matt Reifschneider

Hundra (1983)


"No man will ever penetrate my body with sword or himself" - Hundra
After the success of the testosterone driven “Conan the Barbarian” it was only fitting for the fairer sex to get their due right by having their own barbaric sword and sorcerery epic. The problem is the fairer sex weren’t provided with a fair film as “Hundra”, the first of many female driven “Conan” copies including “Barbarian Queen” and “Red Sonja”, doesn’t come close to the epic greatness of the male driven film they copied. On the plus side it is probably the best of the female driven barbarian films, if that’s any consolation..
Hundra, a heroic female warrior, arrives back to her village to find her matriarchal tribe slaughtered. Having a general hatred for men, the lone surviving elder gives her the distestable order to travel the country side to find a mate in order for her to continue the lineage of her tribe. Her journey leads her to a city ruled by a sadistic king that worships a bull and uses women as toys. Can she destroy the king and his misogynistic ruling while at the same time getting knocked up by a handsome doctor?
Director Matt Cimber is very feminist in his approach as Hundra takes every opportunity to degrade and insult men at every turn in showing how barbaric and sexually devent the male gender is. This is an interesting approach as most barbarian films showcase women as sexual toys (I’m looking at you “Deathstalker”) and it is somewhat hypocritical as the Cimber goes to great lengths to show off his lead actress Laurene Landon, even having her riding her horse naked on a beach!
Filmed in Spain, the film takes advantage of exotic European locations (many of which fans of the Spaghetti Western genre will recognize) and even has Hundra ride to a catchy Ennio Moriconne score (though it pales to other umpteen scores he has provided). The film however lacks any realy drive and excitement. Sure there are action scenes peppered throughout the picture with the lovely Laurene Landon doing most of her own stunts but the film is mostly dull, overlong with only the opening slaughter mimicking the village onslaught from “Conan the Barbarian” being even remotely captivating as the climatic leaves a lot to be desired.
Though not a terrible picture, I was hoping for a little more entertainment value from a female “Conan the Barbarian” clone. The directing and overall film quality is a step above other films in the genre but I’d be lying if didn’t say I enjoyed most of the genre’s bottom feeders even more (give me “Deathstalker” and “The Warrior and the Sorceress” any day over “Hundra”). It just lacks excitement and pacing to make this a truly enjoyable low budget sword and scorcery epic but I do have to admit that Hundra’s dog that leads her horse around by the reigns did bring a smile to my face.
Written By Eric Reifschneider

Monday, June 24, 2013

World War Z (2013)

Director: Marc Forster
Notable Cast: Brad Pitt, Mireille Enos, Fana Mokoena, Daniella Kertesz

With all of the production issues that faced "World War Z," it would be a lie to tell you that my expectations were not much higher than dread for this film. Despite Brad Pitt's strong screen presence, the film's action focus with Marc Forster at the helm had me quaking harder than the cameras he used to destroy "Quantum Of Solace." Much to my surprise, "World War Z" comes out as a rather pleasant surprise as an entertaining summer film. Yes it very much has some issues when it comes to its jumpy script and Foresters relentless camera tactics, but it does redeem itself in the final act.

Gerry (Pitt) and his family are simply going about their regular daily routine when the streets of Philadelphia erupt into chaos from a quickly spreading zombie plague. On the run, they get help from the US government and military who want Gerry to use his investigation talents to help discover where the virus was discovered and find a why to battle it.

While my expectations going into the film were quite low, there was a little piece of me hell bent on hoping this film would pull it off. I wouldn't say that the film pulled it off entirely, we will get into its flaws here in a second, but it certainly was able to do a few things that impressed. When a film goes through as much production troubles and issues as "World War Z" though, I'll take whatever I can get and despite a third act that shifts completely in tone and energy (obviously due to the new writers brought on board) the film somehow comes off as still a cohesive film that overcomes its plot holes.

"Run, it's another apocalypse movie!"
Now it must be said that "World War Z" only feels like a zombie film in the first 15 minutes and the last act. There are handedly the film's highlights. After brief, but quite effective, family building experience with Pitt and Enos as a couple working through life, the film kicks straight into the apocalypse with some of the fastest zombies you've ever seen on screen. It adds quite a bit of tension as they wait for their extraction and it's damn effective as a modern zombie movie when it slows down and shows the chaos of the city around them. Unfortunately, most of the actual zombie attacks are chopped and blurred to basic unwatchable status by Forster's inept ability to to craft an action sequence. And even more unfortunate from that point until the third act, "World War Z" becomes a straight up action/detective film. Pitt, doing his best to burden a rather by the numbers sort of story, is victim to extensive action sequences that are Bourne'd to death in flashes of zombie teeth, Brad Pitt's hair, and gunfire.

How many zombies does it take to scale a wall? One CGI team.
At this point I was ready to give up on the film. When Jerusalem fell so did my expectations. When the airplane crashed and there were only two survivors - our two heroes at this point - my hopes crashed. Then something magical happened. The film changed tone for its final act as Pitt's character actually does something sans run around. At this point, the film shifts into a horror mode. The zombie carnage is traded in for zombie terror and it works. In fact, this is the style they probably should have stuck to for a majority of the film. In a way though, it's enough to salvage a lot of the elements of it's first two-thirds and made the film, in it's entirety, feel a little less below par.

We've gone "28 Days Later" folks.
Overall the film might be a bit run-of-the-mill in its plot and it might have focused far too much on the action portion of its concept rather than the horror, but it does seemingly make a tense and entertaining picture. It's final act is quite impressive though and it makes up for a lot of the issues that I had earlier. Had only they focused on creating that tension and more horror focused style of film right away then perhaps this might have been one of the best zombie movies in the last few years. As is, it's mostly a rental even if it's entertaining and succeeds in moments.

Written By Matt Reifschneider

Monday, June 17, 2013

Mama (2013)

Director: Andy Muschietti
Notable Cast: Jessica Chastain, Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, Megan Charpentier, Isabelle Nelisse

Don't get me wrong, I love Guillermo Del Toro, but having his name attached to something as a producer doesn't necessarily make great films. So when "Mama" arrived in theaters, I actually felt inclined to skip out on the film considering some mixed reviews and plenty of my horror friends claiming it to be 'not scary at all.' When I did eventually get around to watching it, my expectations were low. Perhaps it was these low expectations that made me enjoy the film for the most part, despite some glaring issues with its script and progressions, but for a modern 'ghost film' it did was it needed to throw in a few jump scares and a solid enough concept. I do think they could have pushed it further though.

When two girls are found abandoned, left for dead, in a deserted cabin in the woody wilderness for five years, their uncle Luke (Coster-Waldau) and his rocker girlfriend (Chastain) decide its their responsibility to help them. What they don't realize is that the reason these two girls, now 8 and 6 respectively, only survived with the help of an entity they call 'Mama.' A ghostly figure who's malicious intent for the loss of her 'children' may cause some problems for Luke and Annabel. Problems that may cost a few lives in the process.

"You want me to do what with my hair?"
What's most intriguing about "Mama" is that, like many films touched by the graceful hand of Del Toro, this one has a pretty heavy fantasy streak in it. Not to the extent of say, "Pan's Labyrinth," but there is a definite fairy tale vibe to the film. Helll, "Mama" even starts off with 'once upon a time' in the beginning and the concept that the film begins with two young sisters stranded in the woods and raised by a ghost simply smacks of something the brothers Grimm might have concocted. Perhaps the film is based loosely based on some fairy tale, of that I am not sure, but I felt that right away "Mama" tries to make that clear so judging it fully on a 'horror' scales seems a bit unfair.

Ghosts are always funny...except in "Ju-On." That shit is straight up scary.
From there, the film does start off with a bang. Director Andy Muschietti, with an obviously guided hand by Del Toro, is a visually striking guy and the opening sequence that features a mediocre CGI car wreck is heightened by this strong visual presence of a wintery abandoned cabin that introduces us, in a very awesome horror way, to the character Mama. After this first 15 minutes though, the film does tend to fall into the rather 'been there, done that' formula that tends to plague the ghost film. We are introduced to our two by-the-numbers protagonists, ably acted by Chastain and Coster-Waldau who are thrust into a world of responsibility by taking custody of his two nieces who are found in the woods. From here, the film hits all the right marks in many of the most predictable ways. Research about the ghost's past. Discovery of an unfulfilled story. Incidents in the house that increasingly get violent and scarier. To the film's benefit, it has enough strong visuals and a few jump scares to carry the film through in the first two-thirds.

Unfortunately, it's during the third act that the film tends to fall apart. Firstly, "Mama" starts to cave into to modern tendencies. Instead of using the atmosphere and tension so carefully crafted in the first portion, the film then decides to focus on modern jump scares padded with far too much CGI and a endless need to "show the audience too much." The film also decides to negate logic in many moments for the sake of creating more scares. Our psychologist makes a random trip to the cabin at night, a woman gets possessed by Mama...or something, and we are lead to finale that doesn't make a whole lot of sense considering the direction of focus of how the plot was moving. It was relatively frustrating to watch a decent horror film succumb to modern tendencies and fall apart in front of my eyes.

High five!
This is just how modern horror is headed. They are poisoned by a need to show too much while ignoring the life long lesson of 'less is more', catering to a CGI catered audience, and throwing in needless amounts of scares that end up negating the atmosphere. This is the exact issues that "Mama" falls prey to just in its third act. It's a sad state considering how strong the film starts off with its strong visuals, scary concept, and killer fantasy streaks. The film just so happens to trip at the finish line to end up being a bit too generic for its own good. While I do suggest the film for ghost film fans and those how enjoy Del Toro inspired work, "Mama" might be a better rental first.

Written By Matt Reifschneider

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Relentless IV: Ashes to Ashes (1994)


Aka "Relentless 4"

You all know it was coming. With three “Relentless” films being hits in the rental market already why the hell not make a fourth. Producing this many films into this ‘catch a serial killer’ franchise makes me wonder why they didn’t just make a television series to follow the killer adventures of detective Sam Dietz as the films have degraded to telefilm production values. Even in all its mundaneness, “Relentless IV” is worth a view for an early role for the sexy Famke Janssen, known to younger audiences for playing Xenia Onatop in the Bond film “GoldenEye” and Jean Grey in the “X-Men” franchise.
Sam Dietz (Leo Rossi) returns breaking in ANOTHER partner (seriously this guy changes partners like other people change socks) and again has to catch ANOTHER serial killer that has been murdering victims in religious ceremonies. All the murders have a connection to the luscious psychologist Dr. Jaffee (Janssen) whom Dietz has a past with (off screen). Can Dietz catch the killer while rekindling his relationship with Jaffee while at the same time patching up daddy issues with his teenage son?
Rossi, playing Dietz for his fourth time, is really starting to wear on the nerves. Filmmakers seem to rely more on his comical skills with this entry and they just aren’t funny anymore. His loveable asshole attitude has just degraded over the series and has become unappealing. The killer is also unmemorable. Say what you will about the previous three “Relentless” films but at least those killers made an impression but here he just quickly fades from memory. The film hits its absolute low point when Rossi has an after death experience where he takes advice from his ex-wife (Meg Foster not returning… I wonder why she turned this film down). The sequence is just so poorly executed that it induces laughter and feels just completely awkward. All this is moves to the music that is a poor carbon copy of the score to "Basic Instinct".
“Relentless IV” is a tired sequel in a weak franchise that overstayed its welcome which perhaps shouldn’t have even become a franchise considering how unoriginal the whole concept was to begin with. Rossi has become unappealing and is looking as ragged as the franchise he’s starring in and the whole ending is contrived as can be. The only real reason to watch this entry is the gorgeous and appealing Famke Janssen, who proves she was just as good of an actress in her early days as she is in her newer more prolific films like “X-Men” and “GoldenEye”. With “Relentless IV” it marked the end of the adventures of serial killer detective Sam Dietz and I doubt no one will be shedding one bloody tear for the fact.
Written By Eric Reifschneider

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Frankenstein's Bloody Terror (1968)


Aka "The Mark of the Wolf Man", "The Mark of the Werewolf", "The Vampires of Dr. Dracula", "Hell's Creatures", "The Nights of Satan"

Franchises are pretty fucked up in this day in age with sequels, prequels, sidequels, spin-offs, reboots, sequels to original franchises after reboots and simply ignoring unwanted sequels. Franchises have become so convoluted that I actually feel sorry for younger generations trying to figure this shit out. All these complex franchises, whether it be “Ringu”, “Godzilla”, “Texas Chainsaw Massacre”, “X-Men”, “Highlander” or “Universal Soldier” don’t hold a candle to Paul Naschy’s Spanish horror werewolf franchise. This is seriously the most disjointed, confusing all around fucked up film series ever to be made ranging from theatrical Spanish films to direct-to-video American shit to films never translated to English to even sequels that were never released. What seems like thousands of alternate titles doesn’t help the matter. For a grand total of twelve films, Naschy’s iconic Waldemar Daninsky character with a hairy problem begins here in the confusingly titled “Frankenstein’s Bloody Terror”.
Naschy plays the ancestor of guy with a werewolf problem that has recently moved into his relatives creepy castle. Two gypsies take shelter in the castle and unwittingly release Naschy’s hairy relative from his tomb. While running around the country to stop the monster from murdering helpless victims, Nashy gets bite in the process of killing the beast bringing the mark of the werewolf down upon himself. Desperate for a cure he contacts a an individual from Transylvania mentioned in his ancestors notes and surprise, he’s a fucking vampire that is hell bent on using a werewolf to due his evil bidding.
Naschy, a short bodybuilding Spaniard, was always a huge horror fan (especially of the classic Universal horror films) and wanted a career change thus this film kicked in his long, prolific career as a horror legend, earning him the nick name ‘the Lon Chaney of Spain’. It’s easy to see his Universal horror influence with classic monsters such as the wolfman and vampires but he brings a Spanish twist to the genre. Nashy here is much more graphic and mean-spirited than his Universal, or even Hammer horror counterparts when it comes to gore and violence. Missing from this film however is Naschy trademark sleaze that would be laid on full bore later on in his career so fans of his later work might be a little disappointed by this first effort by the master.
“Frankenstein’s Bloody Terror” is a solid first horror film for the Spanish legend. It’s got the typical flaws of most of the horror films from Spain at the time (mostly due to questionable scripts) but the nifty inclusion of vampires into the werewolf film and the graphic violence makes this an interesting view for fans of the Euro horror genre. The title however throws many for a loop as it should because there literally is no Frankenstein monster in the film. Released as “The Mark of the Wolf Man” in it’s native Spain, the film got oddly retitled for American release to full-fill a contractual obligation. The producers had promised distributors a “Frankenstein” picture but the film they had purchased the rights too called “Dracula vs. Frankenstein” had not yet been completed so securing rights to a foreign horror picture, changing the title and adding on a laughable introduction seemed like an easy fix. Don’t let the title fool you as this is the first entry into Paul Naschy’s long running Hombre Lobo werewolf series and sequels go as follows: "The Night of the Wolf Man" (Never Released), "Assignment Terror", "The Fury of the Werewolf", "Werewolf Shadow", "Dr. Jekyll vs. the Werewolf", "Curse of the Devil", "Night of the Howling Beast", "Night of the Werewolf", "The Beast and the Magic Sword", "Licantropo: The Full Moon Killer" and "Tomb of the Werewolf".
Written By Eric Reifschneider

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Flying Guillotine 2 (1978)

Also known as: Palace Carnage, The Flying Guillotine Part II

Directors: Kang Cheng, Shan Hua
Notable Cast: Ti Lung, Szu Shih, Lieh Lo, Szu Chia-Chen, Chung Wang, Feng Ku

After the success of "The Flying Guillotine" that spawned its own 'spin off' (pun intended) with "Master Of The Flying Guillotine," which is not a Shaw Bros. production, the Shaw studio went ahead with a sequel originally called "Palace Carnage," but will be called "Flying Guillotine 2" for this review. While I enjoyed the shit out of the original film with its strong plot, identifiable characters, and potent action, this sequel tends to lack a bit of the focus and drive that made the first one succeed. Despite its fun and pretty awesome premise, the execution seems to be lacking at times and it just leaves a film that doesn't quite live up to its predecessor.

Only a few years after Ma Teng (Ti Lung) effectively escaped the clutches of the Flying Guillotines, the rule of Emperor Yung Cheng (Feng Ku) has gotten worse. He uses the elusive assassins to reign tyrannically over the Han people. A group of heroes are hell bent to assassinate the power hungry Emperor and with the daughter of one of his close advisers (Szy Shih) they may have the opportunity. Unfortunately, the Emperor has developed a new 'double flying guillotine' to counter Ma Teng's iron umbrella and the heroes are left defenseless...will they be able to team up and defeat the tyrant once and for all?

The gang's all here!
The idea behind "Flying Guillotine 2" is very sound and incredibly awesome. It continues on with many of the themes and story aspects of the original, but twists them to be a solid ending to the tale. Even though they replaced the actor for our 'lead' Ma Teng, they replaced him with the ever awesome Ti Lung and that's okay with me. I was willing to go with it and with the strong ideas in the film, including having a group of heroes partnering with Ma Teng to bring it back to those bastard Guillotines, this sequel should have been an automatic win.

Our new heroine makes a statement...
There are two main issues that arise to hinder this film from reaching it's full potential. Firstly, the story telling tends to be a bit muddled. They add in a second protagonist, Szu Shih who leads an undercover assassination plan, and her addition does add a lot of new layers to the story. Unfortunately, the film then tries to juggle having her and Ma Teng trade off with two different stories and it gets confusing. When Ma Teng loses his family we don't quite feel as devastated as we should because we have been spending more time focusing on her character. The trade off between the two (and various other heroes who don't get the time of day despite having some unique characteristics - including an ill used 'thief' who has one fun moment and is left to die as a character) just tends to derail some of the more potent moments the film could have had.

Secondly, I think the direction of the film tends to fail to support the stronger elements of its story. While the two directors do add some snazzy moments, including lots of dynamic shots and great cinematography, they add in some odd elements that didn't necessarily fit. They tend to play it too safe for the fight sequences, of which there is far more traditional choreography here instead of the cat and mouse fighting that occurred in the first film, and by the time we get to the big finale - they play the final moments in complete slow motion. Epic? Sure, but it's also very distracting and poorly shot making it lose a lot of momentum that could have made it even stronger.

"'s a double whopper!"
"Flying Guillotine 2" is quite a bit of fun in the end though. The concept and acting is impressive and I loved many sequences, including a failed assassination with poisoned daggers that had me on the edge of my seat. The overall flow of the film sputters as it trades off between our two leads and the direction leaves a lot to be desired even if the film follows the Shaw Brothers formula more with its fight sequences and how the story plays out. I hold the first film in very high regard, so it's hard not to be a bit disappointed in this sequel, but I'm sure many kung fu fanatics will love it for its strengths.

Written By Matt Reifschneider

Sorcerer And The White Snake, The (2013)

Director: Ching Siu-tung
Notable Cast: Jet Li, Eva Huang, Raymond Lam, Charlene Choi, Wen Zhang

Jet Li's career in the last few years has taken an odd turn. He has steadily moved away from fight heavy films into drama like  "Ocean Heaven" or into epic influenced fantasy type film like "The Flying Swords Of Dragon Gate." With the disappointment I felt in the latter film, I hoped the the mythical edged "The Sorcerer And The White Snake" would make up for a bit of lost time when it comes to awesome modern martial arts. I was mistaken. In fact, "Sorcerer And The White Snake" is down right a terrible movie. It fails to be anything it strives for as a film and only succeeds in minute instances which are quickly washed away in a tide of mediocre CGI and poorly constructed subplots.

When a young herb collector Xu Xian (Raymond Lam) is saved from drowning by a mischievous White Snake Demon (Eva Huang) through a kiss to give him air, a love connection is made. Upon returning to her friend Green Snake Demon (Charlene Choi), she decides with her help she is going to try to take a human form and start an Earthly life with young man. The problems remains that Abbott Fahai (Jet Li) and his disciple Neng Ren (Wen Zhang) are professional demon hunters armed with other worldly powers that punish demons for interfering with human existence. The two sides are on a collision course that will rock the foundations of the world...can love truly conquer all?

Initially, the promises held by "Sorcerer And The White Snake" seem pretty awesome. Jet Li, as a villain of sorts, duking it out with demons who don't want to harm anyone? Fuck yeah. I'd buy that for a dollar. The problem is, which is a massive issue that undermines the entire film, that this flick has no idea what it wants to be. Is it a martial arts film? Is a romance? Is it a comedy? Is it an action fantasy? "Sorcerer And The White Snake" then tries to ball of these nuances and styles into one massive flick - which in turn does not create a layered artistic endeavor, but one massive clusterfuck. It tries to fit so much plot and character work into the film that none of it comes off as impactful as the premise promises. The martial arts are too fantasy driven, the romance is underdeveloped and forced, the fantasy elements awkward, and the comedy sporadic and randomly thrown in. Half of the time, it just randomly jumps from a comedic sequence to a romantic one (each it's own subplot as the Abbott's disciple turns into a vampire and the snake demon charms her love interest) and it chops its way through instead of letting the story flow. It's frustrating through and through.

To make matter even worse is that in the last act, the film takes a massive turn for the ridiculous and becomes a massive fight sequence between Jet Li and Eva Huang. Why is this worse, you ask? Because it's just two people standing in front of a green screen thrusting fists at each other while insurmountable amounts of mediocre CGI (in the form of water columns or cloud fists) pummel the viewer. Is it epic? Sure. Does it bore? Absolutely. Who cares about wind and water fights? Particularly when all it is is random fantasy injected CGI that rarely, if ever, looks real. The film was already failing to impress outside of a few action sequences (the ally fight was kinda cool) and it needed a finale that would blow me away. FAIL. All we get are CGI water/wind blasts, flying CGI people, swimming CGI rats, oh and Jet Li suddenly has the ability to lift an entire building off the ground. Seriously?

"Let me drown! I don't wanna live through the CGI!"
Now I guess "The Sorcerer And The White Snake" isn't all bad. But damn it's hard to see any of the good aspects through all of the crap that's thrust at the audience. For fans of Jet Li this might be a quirky film for your collection and maybe for those who love a fantasy film, but for this martial arts fan there is too much irritating storytelling flaws with poor focuses. That, and China's weird new obsession with CGI for their "blockbusters" is getting old. It essentially takes a film that had potential like "Sorcerer And The White Snake" and makes it almost all trash. I suggest a skip.

Written By Matt Reifschneider

Von Ryan's Express (1965)


Having a history degree it should come to no surprise that I have affinity for World War II films, especially a liking for films in the genre made in the 1960s. For years I had heard about the greatness of “Von Ryan’s Express” but kept putting it off for the simple fact it starred Frank Sinatra. Ol’ blue eyes has a great voice and isn’t even a bad actor but I was never a fan of him as a person as his arrogant Jersey smugness always rubbed me the wrong way. Well after finally getting past my Sinatra ‘hatred’ I finally broke down and got this WWII classic and I’m glad I finally did as it lived up to it’s reputation of being one of the all-time great films of the genre.
Sinatra plays a pilot who gets shot down in Nazi occupied Italy. Thrown into a prisoner of war camp he butts heads with a British commander (Trevor Howard). After negotiating with their Italian captor (Adolfo Celi of ‘Thunderball”) he gets the prisoners rations and clothing but gets thrown in the sweat box in exchange. While cooking alive in the tin can the prisoners take the camp and escape not long before being caught. While being transported on a train, ol’ blue eyes and crew take it over and it’s a freight train speeding to freedom… but only if they can outrun the Nazi’s that seem to be at their every turn.
Before the 60s most war films were about being ‘heroic’ but when the 60s came calling war films turned a little darker, showing the horrors of war and became character studies on how war negatively affected individuals. This is why I love this era of the genre. “Von Ryan’s Express” takes this darker angle yet at the same time is a rip-roaring adventure flick along the lines of Alistair Maclean novels. It starts off like prisoner of war film, mimicking “The Great Escape’ but then quickly morphs into a high adventure escape flick that is sure to keep audiences on the edge of their seats at every turn on the track.
The look of the film is grand as Fox has something to prove after their huge flop “Cleopatra”. Mamoth sets (including a prison camp), eye popping cinematography, amazing special effects and authentic props was all a show for Fox to prove to their competitors that they were still worthy competition in the business. It worked as the film was a hit and historians will marvel at the authentic set pieces, including trains and clothing. Jerry Goldsmiths marvelous score perfectly encompasses all these professional film products.

The cast is great (with James Brolin in a small role) and though I’m not a fan of Frank Sinatra as a person I do admit he a wonderful acting job. One can tell they changed much of the dialogue to the wise, shiftless attitude of Sinatra but it fits him well especially with his adversarial relationship with Trevor Howard, one of the most underappreciated actors of his time for playing second fiddle to main leading men. Sinatra’s character is flawed, making poor dicisions throughout the film that affects the lives of the other prisoners so he personally had the ending of the film changed, and in my opinion for the better as it is more fitting for the character. 
“Von Ryan’s Express” is an exciting, high class thrilling World War II film. The darker approach to the subject matter with the high adventure script makes it an absolute winner and it’s a damn shame I waited so long to see it. I would even go as far to say that “Von Ryan’s Express” ranks up there with the best of the genre, just under the likes of films classics such as “The Great Escape” and “Where Eagles Dare.” In other words it’s a must own.
Written By Eric Reifschneider