Sunday, April 26, 2015

Skin Trade (2015)

Director: Ekachai Uekrongtham

Notable Cast: Dolph Lundgren, Tony Jaa, Celina Jade, Michael Jai White, Ron Perlman, Peter Weller, Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa

With the advent of VOD and digital movie services, the term ‘straight to home video’ rarely defines something as ‘bad’ like it used to. For B-movie fans or those more interested in genre affair (and if you are at this site, that’s probably you) then it’s something of blessing in disguise. Low budget or off-mainstream films can suddenly get wide releases for decently cheap without having fans or curious audiences purchase the film. This also allows these same kinds of films to achieve more – without sacrificing their intentions. Take Skin Trade as a prime example. This is a film most definitely catered to the ‘old school’ action audience that blends styles of action into a highly entertaining film…that occasionally touches on a more dramatic tone. The mix doesn’t always work, but it’s much more proficient then one would expect this kind of film to be at it.

Nick (Dolph Lundgren) is on the trail of some vicious Russian sex traffickers in New Jersey. When he leads a team to seize a botched shipment, he kills the son of a ruthless businessman (Ron Perlman) who takes revenge by killing his family. Now Nick must travel to Southeast Asia as a vigilante on the run from an FBI agent (Michael Jai White) and team up with a local cop (Tony Jaa).

Lundgren gives one of the better performances of his career here. No kidding.
It’s like a B-action movie daydream. Dolph Lundgren and Tony Jaa teaming up to take down a villainous businessman in the skin trade played by Ron Perlman with glorified cameos by Peter Weller and Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa. This, of course, is truly the basis for a film like Skin Trade. The film is relentless and efficient in its pacing with the first half hour dedicated to story and the last two thirds dedicated to action and it uses all the classic tropes to various degrees of success. Both Dolph and Jaa give some of the best performances of their careers and we get shockingly well shot and choreographed fight sequences (of note: Tony Jaa vs Dolph Lundgren and Tony Jaa vs the underrated Michael Jai White) and the film sticks firm to its violent roots. Ever wanted to see Tony Jaa blast people with a shotgun or throw a man off of a roof and drop the one-liner “Negotiations are over?” Done. The film is full of old school vengeance themes and threaded through with bits of police corruption and loyalty. The performances are rather hit or miss, but action fans are going to eat this up.

As for the film outside of its genre-inspired movements…Skin Trade is a lot weaker. Director Ekachai Uekrongtham, known mostly for his theatrical work and a few documentaries, attempts for occasional artistic blips within the film. A scene where Lundgren finds a series of cage like cells filled with battered women strikes a remarkably somber tone in the middle of a fire fight and the film really attempts to drive its message about the horrors of the skin trade home at various times. Unfortunately, the efficient manner of its script and the often generic dialogue don’t help the film. The secondary characters remain hollow faces as characters (Michael Jai White, outside of one great fight sequence, is given nothing to work with for his character – which is a shame when he’s a stellar action star) and the film needed another 30 to 45 minutes of character and plot development to really make the more emotional and artistic beats hit home. As is, the film is simply predictable and rarely embraces a lot of the potentially impactful material it fringes on.

Jaa doing what he does best: pouring grain. AND THEN KICKING A MAN INTO IT.
However, despite it’s obvious scripting flaws and missed opportunities to add some more dramatic meat to the film (Uekrongtham tried, so I give him credit), Skin Trade is still a fun and surprisingly well executed film. Judging from its B-action dream cast, I figured the film would end up being far more simplistic and too modern. It’s neither of those. It’s a lot of old school action tropes, blended with a bit of that Thai action flair, and then cursed by being almost too ambitious for its budget and script. It’s not nearly a perfect film, but it will definitely appease those looking for a solid action thriller for rather cheap on VOD. Plus, you know, it has awesome action things like Tony Jaa fighting Michael Jai White and Dolph Lundgren with a rocket launcher. Win/win.

Written By Matt Reifschneider

Saturday, April 25, 2015

Muck (2015)

Director: Steve Wolsh
Notable Cast: Lachian Bechanan, Puja Mohindra, Jaclyn Swedberg, Bryce Draper, Lauren Francesca, Stephanie Danielson, Laura Jabobs, Grant Alan Ouzts, Kane Hodder

Outside of a few quips about ‘old school horror’ and ‘featuring Kane Hodder,’ I went into Muck blind. It’s not the smartest thing to do, buying low budget straight to home video horror movies blind, but I liked the idea that those two quips said to me. Unfortunately, like most quips and cover artwork on these kinds of movies, I was tricked. I was tricked into buying this modern piece of horror garbage. Perhaps if I were fifteen years old, Muck would have had me entertained. But I am a well-versed and intelligent horror film fan…and quite frankly Muck was borderline insulting to my intelligence.

A group of friends find themselves on the run from barbaric men in white make up on the night of St. Patrick’s Day. They hole up in a cabin and attempt to figure out what is going on and get help.

While the simplicity of the above synopsis could have passed off with strong atmosphere, clever storytelling, or even a half assed attempt at being thoughtful, Muck tends to think it’s way more awesome then it is…. particularly when it comes to its story telling approach. The film starts in the middle of the events of this terrible night for our protagonists. After the opening credits that are intercut with a topless woman wandering around a marsh at night (more on that in a second), the film then introduces us to our protagonists, a group of 20-somethings already on the run with one missing and one seriously injured. The film never explains how they get here. Stranger still, the film ends on a ‘to be continued’ like cliffhanger where none of the events of the film are explained. It never even hints at what is going to happen. I was bewildered and frustrated by what seemed to be terrible story telling.

It does have gore. So there's that.
Upon further research after I sat in said bewilderment at the film’s obvious lack of set up and climax, I found that Muck is actually the second film of a proposed trilogy of films from director/writer Steve Wolsh. The other two entries have yet to be filmed. And while starting the audience in the middle of the horror seems like it might be a surprise and a clever way to go about things, it really just comes off as inept and frustrating for an audience that wants some sort of pay off for the hour and a half spent with the story. Thanks for trying, but no thanks.

Worse still, Muck has almost nothing else going for it. The characters are complete assholes, the film attempts a meta-concept as they bumble through dialogue comparing their situation to horror movies, the scares and tension are lost in the marsh with the film’s attempts at humor, and Muck spends most of its time showing young women in various states of undress. Even beyond the opening credits that feature a topless woman in underwear wandering around a marsh (of which there are plenty of zoom shots on her breasts), the film then continues to act like it was made by fifteen year old boys. There is even an extended sequence where one of our protagonists makes it to a bar to call his friend to pick them (…and not the fuckin’ cops – in true stupid character choices of horror movies 101) and it shows the drunk friend with two girls. One of them goes to the bathroom and then tries on various underwear to see which one is sexiest when she beds the guy. I am not making this shit up. We spend a good portion of this sequence watching someone strut around in underwear in a mirror. It’s as if the various people behind this movie were trying to feed into all of the worst stereotypes of a horror film…and quite frankly, succeeding at it.

I was tempted to do the same watching this movie.
My recommendation is that everyone should let Muck sink back into the foul earth it was built from. The attempts at being clever never work, the writing is dumb at its best, the acting is worse – I suppose that’s what you get when a third of your cast are models and not actresses – and the few moments of “old school” horror are so obvious and generic that it’s not even worth the watch for that. Did I mention that Kane Hodder shows up for a paycheck? If there is any horror movie worse than Muck to be released in 2015, I will be utterly shocked.

Written By Matt Reifschneider

Thursday, April 23, 2015

Twin Swords, The (1965)

Director: Hsu Cheng Hung

Notable Cast: Jimmy Wang Yu, Chin Ping, Lo Lieh, Ivy Ling Po

After the rather disappointing first entry Temple of theRed Lotus, I was a bit hesitant to just leap into The Twin Swords. With essentially the same cast and crew from what I can tell, there was potential that it would just be an elongated third act for the rather long winded and boring story focused pieces of Temple. Trick me twice and shame on me. In a strange way, despite still not feeling like a whole film on its own, The Twin Swords is a step up from the first entry. It is action packed, filled with legit consequences, and even adds a few out of the blue elements to keep it interesting. It’s still not a full movie, but at least it’s more entertaining.

Sunday, April 19, 2015

Supremacy (2015)

Director: Deon Taylor
Notable Cast: Joe Anderson, Dawn Olivieri, Danny Glover, Evan Ross, Anson Mount, Derek Luke

Whenever I see the phrase “inspired by a true story” or “based on true events” or any of the other ways they go about saying the same thing, I automatically get cautious. When those kinds of phrases are used, there is a chance that the film will collapse into a Lifetime original movie and nobody wants that. For Supremacy, that never happens. While the events of a real life occurrence are the basis of this film, rarely does it feel like a biopic or dramatization of something on America’s Most Wanted. Director Deon Taylor and company craft a film that is a film first – which might piss some people off, but for the film it’s the smart choice.

Tully (Joe Anderson) was just released from prison and one of the Aryan Brotherhood groupies (Dawn Olivieri) is there to pick him up. Within the first 24 hours however, shit hits the fan and after killing a police officer the two criminals take refuge in the house of Mr. Walker (Danny Glover) and his family – a move that might be their saving grace, if they can all survive the day.

While having a couple of Aryan Brotherhood members as the main protagonists is a chancy move, Supremacy pulls it off remarkably well. Instead of painting a film that is black and white with its good and evil aspects, writer Eric Adams and director Deon Taylor opt to have a more fully fleshed set of realistic characters. The plot itself is simple, it’s essentially a home invasion film, but the characters make the themes and moral standings more impactful without necessarily jamming it down the audience’s throats. If anything, because the plot is so simplistic, the characters and their respective actors have to carry this film instead of relying on plot progressions or twists. The entire cast is astounding at doing this too. Joe Anderson’s torn psyche devours scenes whole, Danny Glover makes a sparking connection with all moments in the film, and the creepy and often manipulative questionable character that Dawn Olivieri is asked to portray is impeccably done. While the plot seems almost too simple, it’s impactful thanks to a cast that punctuates it will all the necessary moments needed.

Director Taylor does some admirable things to make Supremacy function too. With a modern Michael Mann sense of grittiness and a strong sense of visuals, he really holds the tension and breaks it at all of the appropriate times using flashbacks or bits of humor. Take the sequence where Dee has the young boy on the floor of the kitchen as a police officer looks into the house. The camera manipulates these juxtaposed high-speed spins around the characters. It’s frantic, but it balances the small details of the script and the characters in just the right way to craft a pulse pounding tension that works. He does this repeatedly throughout the film and it’s impressive to say the least.

If there was anything that holds Supremacy back from being a damn near perfect thriller, it’s the fact that it might not have quite enough back-story for the family of the home invasion plot. There are plenty of tidbits to enjoy, including a nice father/son aspect with a local police officer, but some of the tension and familial issues that arise might have been layered into the themes about racism even more. That way when see the human connections being made in the latter half between our invaders and invadees, it comes out with even more bang.

Outside of some little things, Supremacy is a shockingly effective, thoughtful, and well executed dramatic thriller. It touches on the topic of racism in very valuable ways and shows a unique blend of thriller aspects melded with writing that raises an issue often not approached in film enough. If you are looking for a great, thoughtful film then look no further than Supremacy. It’s not a fluffy feel good flick, but it’s a film that edges on boundaries that many thrillers do not have the courage to take on.

Written By Matt Reifschneider

Man with the Iron Fists 2, The (2015)

Director: Roel Reine
Notable Cast: RZA, Dustin Nguyen, Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa, Carl Ng, Rugenia Yuan, Pim Bubear, Simon Yin

"You see, gentlemen. You just walked into a windstorm of flying elephant shit."

While the first Man with the Iron Fists met generally negative reaction from critics and fans alike, there is a heart to that film which does bubble to the surface. It’s a film crafted by fans of the genre that just had trouble getting their love to translate during the film. There are various reasons why the first film crumbles under scrutiny (feel free to check out my review of the film HERE) and the surprise second film, cleverly titled The Man with the Iron Fists 2, fixes a few of these things…although it tends to falter at some new elements too. The results? It’s another mixed effort that spends more time being entertainingly bad then straight up entertaining.

For Thaddeus (RZA), a move of vengeance by the Lion Clan leaves him severely wounded and floating down a river. He washes up in a small village being run by the vicious and corrupt Beetle Clan. The village is being worked to death in a silver mine nearby and a local leader (Nguyen) is trying his best to stand up to them. Together they will find that it’s not only the silver mine and corruption that is driving the village towards evil…

Back under the blade.
The Man with the Iron Fists 2 contains the same heart that the first film featured. Wu Tang mastermind and martial arts aficionado RZA once again serves as a writer for the film and as the main star Thaddeus, which is both a blessing and a curse once again. While he still struggles as an actor, this sequel rightly limits his character arc to match his strengths (the strong silent type suits him much better than the love struck and torn individual of the first.) His writing still showcases some terrible dialogue and obvious plot progressions that feel down right face palm predictable, but this film learned from the attempted epic feel of the first and simplifies everything down. We do have two protagonists and two plots that meld into one, but it’s not needlessly complex. It’s a move that saves the film from having too many plot holes and just enough to be hilariously silly. When you have dialogue like the above quoted line, it’s much easier to just sit back and enjoy the film from being a B-grade action flick instead of the attempts at being more than that, which undercut the first film.

It’s this sense of ‘fun’ that really seems to work for this franchise. While the dialogue and acting tend to be terrible on the surface, the film works in that B-grade sense. Dustin Nguyen is perhaps the sole star of the film who seems to really be trying with his acting and partnered with his martial arts skills, is the only one that rises above the straight-to-home video feel. Much of the secondary cast is solid enough, Carl Ng as the villain eats up scenery with his ‘so-evil-it’s-funny’ lines (he delivers a monologue about how hard he is to kill by referencing a prostitute that chewed off one of his testicles), and Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa plays a concerned mayor that may have his own agenda with relative ease. Some of the family dynamics of Nguyen’s character fall flat – not enough time to really develop his wife and daughter relationships honestly, but it works well enough to keep the audience entertained.

A villainous Ho.
Perhaps the strangest position to the film was the lack of strong fight choreography. The significantly reduced budget certainly hurts in having those bigger fights, but the martial arts on display tend to be fairly basic. Director Roel Reine knows better than to edit and zoom as much as the first film did (which ruined a lot of the well set up action set pieces), but The Man with the Iron Fists 2 doesn’t give him as much quality fight work to really showcase. For a martial arts film, this is a pretty big sin that the rest of the film simply can’t overcome. What they have in the film is fun enough (particularly when some of the members bust out the Mantis style kung fu), but it’s not enough to really win over the more critical martial arts fanatics that are going to be buying this film.

Round 1: Fight!
Still, if you are a fan of B-grade action the silliness of the plot and dialogue is going to be overly entertaining. It’s not that The Man with the Iron Fists 2 ever even attempts at being more than a modern homage to classic kung fu with plenty of terrible one liners, gimmick riddled plot devices, and outrageous characters, but that is its biggest saving grace. If you are considering a purchase of the film, you already know if you are going to find entertainment in it or not – so just go with the punches and pick it up.

Written By Matt Reifschneider

Friday, April 17, 2015

Temple of the Red Lotus (1965)

Director: Hsu Cheng Hung
Notable Cast: Jimmy Wang Yu, Ivy Ling Po, Lo Lieh, Chin Ping

While my love for the Shaw Brothers filmography developed through the studios’ 70s and 80s classic hand to hand combat films, time and availability has grown my appreciation for what the studio had to offer in various genres and styles – but the earlier 60s martial arts films still tend to feel a bit unconfident in many ways. This wavering dedication to a style shows up heavily in Temple of the Red Lotus. Despite some solid attempts at narrative and the sheer star power of both Jimmy Wang Yu and Lo Lieh, the film finds itself wandering a bit too much and failing to provide the entertainment needed to sell it’s epic story.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Samaritan Zatoichi (1968)

Director: Kenji Misumi
Notable Cast: Shintaro Katsu, Yoshiko Mita, Makoto Sato, Ko Nishimura, Takuya Fujioka, Yasuhiro Minakami, Chocho Miyako, Akira Shimizu

When it comes to watching Zatoichi films, director Kenji Misumi is rarely a man that allows his entry to fall towards the bottom of the franchise. For the nineteenth entry into the long running blind swordsman series Samaritan Zatoichi, Misumi finds himself helming one of the most generic entries into the series. Luckily, he’s at the helm and he gives the film a lot more depth then it has in its script. Otherwise this film easily could have been the worst of the franchise for its misuse of humor, predictable plot, and boring characters.

Zatoichi (Shintaro Katsu) looks to find some money for his endless meandering and ends up doing a local yakuza boss a favor. A young man owes a lot of money and in a drunken stupor ends up at the sharp end of Zatoichi’s cane. His sister, who shows up with the money, is taken to work in the boss’ brothel. This injustice does not go unseen by the blind swordsman and he vows to protect the woman at all costs to right his wrong.

Watch your back...err...something.
The Zatoichi franchise has more than eagerly established a formula that it, more or less, maintains with fierce regularity. So it’s not all that surprising that Samaritan Zatoichi finds itself heavily entrenched in this same structure. This time around though it feels much less like a comfortable formula and more like an uninspired rut. Not only does the film feel like it’s patched pieces of other stronger films (and other films that are still worse than this like Zatoichi’s Flashing Sword, so there’s that), but the tonality is patchy too. The film starts off on a strong note with a well shot stand off against the young man in his little house that’s thick with atmosphere – but quickly after that, the film loses a lot of that feel for the sake of building a film that’s more fun. The humor, including a rather awkward sequence where Zatoichi is rolled in a rug and is going to be thrown into a river, is almost slapstick in nature and the it’s obvious that Misumi struggles a bit in weaving that into the more serious plot. A potentially tense sequence where Zatoichi must ride a horse to catch some fleeing bandits is played for laughs instead of tension and it sputters out, despite its potential. So it’s not that Samaritan Zatoichi is horrendously all over the place, but it’s inconsistent enough to keep the viewer from truly engaging into the story.

Outside of the fact that we’ve seen this plot routine before a plethora of times at this point, Samaritan Zatoichi still fails to really inspire a lot of dedication from its audience – let alone its fan base. The characters seem redundant and even the continued nuance and build of Katsu as our hero can’t save the film from feeling ‘meh’ with its lackluster characters. The action is standard and the humor (as mentioned) is forced and inconsistent. Misumi still crafts a shot like a pro and there are these bright shining moments of punch – including a scene where the young woman tries to kill Zatoichi in a fit of sad rage, but the rest is simply mediocre at best.

Death to Zatoichi!
Thus far in the Zatoichi series I have only found myself disappointed in the results a handful of times and Samaritan Zatoichi is one of those. Considering Misumi is the director on this one, it’s easily more disappointing then expected even with its strong moments. Fans might find it decent enough to sit through and if you are unfamiliar with the earlier films in the franchise then it might seem fun and well written, but as a whole it’s just too formulaic with not enough unique aspects to sell itself.

Written By Matt Reifschneider

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

My Life Directed by Nicolas Winding Refn (2015)

Director: Liv Corfixen

I think this a nice short film, directed by Liv Corfixen, whom is the lovely bride to Mr. Refn. Now, I will warn that I am a big fan of Refn, and I am only shy Pusher 2 and 3 of seeing all of his films, and genuinely enjoying all of them. I don't feel that I am biased though. I think his weakest film is Bleeder [out of all of them], though I think I prefer it to Fear X. Even then, there was a lot about Fear X I liked. That is for another conversation though, and I've already wasted several lines, including this one, not speaking of the title in which I am here to talk about.

My Life Directed by Nicolas Winding Refn, is a nice, and short and sweet look into Refn's life whilst making a movie, though most of the film is the more intricate little conversations during the offshoot hours, after, or before. I like Refn as a personality, honestly. A lot of directors have this sort of mystic vibe about them, as in you don't see a whole lot of candid moments with them. My favorite filmmaker is Park Chan-wook, but rarely do I see the more everyday life side of him, and honestly I know there are a lot of people that don't care about that side or aspect of their favorite filmmakers or artists in general. I am on the flip-side of that coin of course, and I really dig seeing these little moments or fragments into the lives of these people who I truly admire.

That being said, this is my biggest complaint of the film. I don't feel that there are enough really shining moments [good or bad] that stand out. I also can't say how much footage she had to sift through to get what she got, or if there was even that much to truly feel a need to put into the film. Maybe a lot of the footage she captured just wasn't interesting. There are plenty of moments where Refn does not want to articulate or act on how he is feeling or open up for the cameras. In a way, he feels a little guarded that there is a camera on him this entire process.

I've also heard people say they wish this would've just been an extra feature on the home media release of Only God Forgives, and while I get that, I also understand that this was Liv's project. She wasn't obliged by a company or contractor to come in with a tiny crew and make a "behind the scenes" doc to be included as an extra feature. This was her, with her own camera, doing a project for herself. For that reason, I respect her choosing to release this later. And honestly, it probably wasn't even ready or remotely close to being ready for the release of Only God Forgives. I'm sure, as I mentioned earlier, that she had tons of footage to go through, as I see her possibly having the camera there almost at all times.

I don't think there is a ton to say about this film, other than if you are interested in Refn, or enjoy him as a filmmaker, then of course this is most definitely worth checking out. I think my biggest fault with it is its length. The film is not even a full hour (shy a couple of minutes) and I feel it honestly could've been a bit longer. Of course that's subjective, and you could argue with me. In the end, I truly enjoyed my hour with the Refn family (plus the humorous Gosling moments), and I patiently await to see where Nicolas takes me next.

Written By Josh Parmer

Sunday, April 5, 2015

Enter the Dangerous Mind (2015)

Directors: Youssef Delara, Victor Teran

Notable Cast: Jake Hoffman, Nikki Reed, Thomas Dekker, Scott Bakula, Jason Priestley

Very few psychological thrillers find the right balance between commercial viability and edgy cleverness to rise above being mediocre films. For Enter the Dangerous Mind, the results come off as just that – mediocre. There are plenty of themes and intriguing topics of potential to be found in this nifty independent film, but it mostly sacrifices them for some predictable plot twists and some missed attempts at thoughtful themes.

Jim (Hoffman) is at a constant battle with his half brother (Dekker). His brother endless berates and nags him about his life and it pushes him to find sanctuary in his music, both writing and mixing. When he meets a beautiful social worker Wendy (Reed), he decides to try to take power of his life and move on a new path…but quickly he finds himself spiraling out of control.

Enter the Dangerous Mind, for a rather low budget indie film, has some pretty solid production values. Directors Youssef Delara and Victor Teran know how to shoot a film. Using the dubstep elements of the characters sanctuary, they blend some intriguing visuals into the mix with some strong sound design. At times the film touches on an almost psychedelic nature, particularly Jim’s conversations with his brother which start off almost brashly humorous before growing darker and more devious, and the film builds a slow – but solid – first act to launch into some interesting thematic ideas. It crafts a basis for the thriller elements of acts two and three nicely.

However, there are two major faults to Enter the Dangerous Mind that almost utterly unbalance the entire film. Firstly, the film lacks an empathetic nature for our main protagonist Jim. Jim suffers from mental illness in the film and between the choices of our directors and the performance of Jake Hoffman, the sense of him being a victim is completely washed away by the focus that he is already a ticking time bomb. This sort of viewpoint that ‘everyone with mental illness is a violent outburst waiting to happen’ breeds its own sort of idiocy to the proceedings. Even worse still, the film approaches this exact subject by having the young social worker Wendy study this issue to only throw it out the window by brushing it over for the sake of the thriller elements. The potential for a smart movie is outweighed by the film’s need to water down the thoughtful undertones into a more easily consumable product. It leaves Enter the Dangerous Mind feeling almost offensive in its reluctance (or straight out failure) to show Jim as empathetic instead of psychotic.

Secondly, Enter the Dangerous Mind misses out on being clever in many of its twists and turns. Throughout the film we are shown blips and pieces of a traumatic experience that fuels Jim’s mental issues and it allows the third act to dive into a sort of detective game for one of the secondary characters (played with honesty by Scott Bakula). At this point though, the narrative gets jumbled and the film refuses to either go edgier with its twists or even to throw in a twist at all. It feels like a huge twist is coming at the end…but it never comes to fruition. Instead, the final act tends to focus on resulting collapse of Jim and Wendy – which leads to an utterly predictable conclusion.

Can you hear it?
If anything, Enter the Dangerous Mind fails to capitalize on its fringing artistic and thoughtful approaches and it culminates with the film being another mediocre psychological thriller. Some of the performances are solid, Bakula steals the show, and the directors show some intriguing artistic flourishes in their visuals and how they use their sound cues, but the focuses and execution of characters is so drastically flawed that most of those good things are lost in the sea of mediocrity. Enter the Dangerous Mind shows a bit of potential. It’s just not enough to warrant too much excitement for the rest of the film.

Written By Matt Reifschneider

Furious 7 (2015)

Director: James Wan

Notable Cast: Vin Diesel, Paul Walker, Michelle Rodriguez, Jason Statham, Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson, Jordana Brewster, Ludacris, Tyrese Gibson, Kurt Russell, Nathalie Emmanuel, Tony Jaa, Ronda Rousey, Djimon Hounsou, Lucas Black, Luke Evans

Also known as: Furious Seven, Fast & Furious 7

With the seemingly unstoppable train of hype and curiosity that resulted from the sudden and tragic death of Paul Walker, it was only decently obvious that Furious Seven (yes, that is the actual title on the film and this is what I will be referring to it as) would hit hard in theaters. With the numbers rolling in for a massive opening weekend already, it’s hard to argue that this film, at least in some form, doesn’t deserve this kind of attention. For the seventh film in the franchise, Furious Seven retains just as much energy, heart, humor, and high octane action as the previous two films and despite some very shocking set backs – really keeps things moving in the right direction. It’s still not quite as good as Fast Five, but Furious Seven hits all the right marks for what is sure to be one of the most entertaining film experiences you’re likely to have all year.

Because why not?
Life is settling down for the Toretto family. Dom (Diesel) and Letty (Rodriguez) are working their issues out since her return and Brian (Walker) and Mia (Brewster) are getting into the groove of family life with their son Jack. That is until a new Deckland Shaw (Statham) kills Han and sends a bomb to kill the rest of the Toretto clan. Now it’s up to Dom and the gang to find Shaw before he finds them and with the help of a secret program God’s Eye and a black ops gig from Mr. Nobody (Russell), they have limited time to do it.

Continuing on in the same fashion as Five and 6, Furious Seven impresses by making a film that is certainly part of a franchise (character and plot wise), but stands on its own two feet as a massive film. Within the narrative, Seven tends to be a little sporadic as it blends two plot lines, Shaw versus Toretto and the God’s Eye heist, into a globe hopping adventure that tends to have to occasionally force scene changes. Oh wait, you gave the program to your friend in Abu Dhabi? Guess we go there to blow things up! You mean the hacker is being escorted by a warload in the mountains? Let’s parachute cars in there! Luckily, James Wan, new to the franchise as director and new to the genre as a whole, steps right into Justin Lin’s shoes and seems pretty comfortable in understanding how this franchise should – and needs – to work. He might even shoot the fight sequences a smidgeon better. Seven throws in all the necessary moments needed for a Fast & Furious flick (including more car racing and racing culture that is starting to feel a bit out of place in the action films) so fans will be excited to see repeated characters and jokes that still work.

"Cars don't fly, Dom!"
Truthfully though, the Fast & Furious franchise has never been one for great, logistical storytelling. This franchise has bloomed into a full on adrenaline pumping punch to the face and Seven does just that. Whether it’s the spectacle of seeing ‘skydriving,’ having Statham act as a sort of evil British Kool-Aid man and bursting into every locale with guns blazing, or the ridiculously complex ‘battle of Los Angeles’ in the finale – which features two fist fights, drone warfare, and The Rock taking on a military helicopter mano y mano, then it’s here. It might not quite have the spectacle of the airport finale of 6 or the Rio heist of Five, but even the Abu Dhabi sequence (which features a “flying” car that careens through THREE skyscrapers) attempts to go for the gold. The entertainment and style of watching a team of charismatic ‘family members’ continually destroy cities is infectious.

Yet with all of the bullets, explosions, and people being hurled through glass, it’s the ensemble feature of Seven that wins for having the most heart. Snicker if you want as Diesel continues to grumble growl about family or the continued presence of gimmick secondary characters, this film has an 8-cylinder heart that oozes its charm into every aspect. Sure, Statham plays one of two villains in the film (the other is a warloard played by Djimon Hounsou) and The Rock is sidelined for most of the action, but boy oh boy do they make every minute of their screen time worth it. Statham’s entrance into the film is something of legend. Kurt Russell shows up to simply devour scenes as the charming government black ops commander Mr. Nobody and even both Tony Jaa and Ronda Rousey get to make the most of their fight-oriented limited screen time. They utilize Jaa too much greater effect than Taslim received in 6 and it’s these kind of learning curves shows that the franchise is still perfecting itself. Hell, even if a character like Hector (popping up for his first time since the first film) can get a smile out of the face of an audience, then this film is doing something right.

Alas, there is an elephant in the room though and that’s how Furious Seven has to cope with death of Paul Walker in mid shoot. To say that this film handles it in the most heart felt manner – and shockingly artistic way in the final ten minutes – is an understatement to the work of the cast and crew. The moments of CGI Brian can be a bit obvious and the editing of some early scenes and a second fight with Tony Jaa is also a bit heavy handed to cover up body doubles, but instead of looking for these things straight out – the film reminds us that it’s about the heart that goes with these efforts and not the results themselves that make this ‘one last ride’ worth it. If the crying people in the theater were any indication, Seven handles this aspect so fittingly that it deserves its own award for overcoming such an obstacle.

Call it big. Call it dumb. Call it what it is. Furious Seven is the kind of film that shows that no matter what production problems are present or even how patchy a script can be, that a film can be both entertaining and heartfelt with the right intentions. This film knows exactly what it is, what it’s fan base wants, and delivers on all accounts. Furious Seven might crush the box office this weekend with its hype and the curiosity of an audience looking to see if the entry can be pulled off through it’s issues, but it’s going to remain one of the better action films of the year by remaining true to what it is. If the seventh entry of this franchise can remain this much fun, then I’m already prepared to purchase tickets for the next seven entries.

R.I.P. Paul Walker. Thanks for the cinematic memories.

Written By Matt Reifschneider

Thursday, April 2, 2015

Vengeance of an Assassin (2015)

Director: Panna Rittikrai
Notable Cast: Dan Chupong, Nathawut Boonrubsub, Ping Lumpraploeng, Nisachon Tuamsungnoen

The Thai action scene, which exploded in the late 90s and early 00s with the likes of Born to Fight and Ong Bak, owes a great deal of its success to Panna Rittikrai – a director and fight choreographer with a true knack for fun and brutal action. So that fact, combined with the news of his passing last year, has left some intriguing expectations for his final directorial effort Vengeance of an Assassin - expectations that probably won’t be met by harsher critics and expectations that will leave this film revered by others simply as the last of an era. In a way, the film is both more of what the audience wants and something unique as it perfectly culminates what Rittikrai was all about. It showcases some interesting new ground for the Thai scene and leaves us wondering what he might have done next if he had remained with us.

For Than (Nathawut Boonrubsub) and Thee (Dan Chupong), the murder of their parents has hung over their lives like a dark cloud since they were children. Raised by their mechanic uncle (Ping Lumpraploeng), they have always looked for answers but rarely found any. When  Thee leaves and becomes a hitman for hire, he uncovers a plan to set him up as the fall man for a young woman (Nisachon Tuamsungnoen)…by the same people that killed his parents.

Dan Chupong strutting his acting ability.
At its core, Vengeance of an Assassin is ‘classic’ Thai action through and through. I say ‘classic’ in quotations because this means it comes with both the benefits and the problems of most Thai films. Like most of Rittikrai’s other films, Vengeance sports a ridiculous amount of action and very little in the way of cohesive storytelling. Vengeance starts off building this solid ‘family’ dynamic, but quickly it finds itself sort of just yabbering at the screen. I’m not sure if yabbering is a word, but it certainly fits here. The acting is spastic and the character arcs are forced and awkward – a combination that can be pretty gnarly to get through. There is enough here to get the audience through, but it’s pretty rough sailing – particularly when they add in a random romantic subplot and a botched assassination that really has no legs to stand on. The kicker of this laki of narrative is…well, if you’ve seen any of his other films (or most any Thai film crafted under his influence) then you know exactly what to expect, so it’s not all that disappointing. It’s simply par for the course.

Interestingly enough, Vengeance of an Assassin actually represents something of new ground for director Rittikrai on top of its ‘classic’ Thai action formula. There is definitely a new ‘gun fu’ Hong Kong inspired spin to the story. The John Woo style of bullet ballets and duel wielding guns mixes remarkably well with the Thai action formula here and the culmination of fist n’ feet with guns n’ explosions certainly showcases an interesting direction for the film to take. Rittikrai throws in a couple of ‘uncut’ camera shots of gun fights (think of the hospital scene in Hard Boiled done on a third of the budget) which come out as impressive for film overall. Outside of a fun, but incredibly awkward sequence with one of the most unintentionally hilarious CGI train rides – and crashes – in film history, the action here is awesome through and through. The fights are brutal and well structured, the stunts are top notch, and the gunplay is remarkably energetic.

Walking on broken glass? Who do you think broke that damn glass?
In the end though, the poorly structured narrative and awkward characters cannot be completely erased by the extensive and energetic action on display. It works at times, including a rather silly but enigmatically appealing opening soccer match in a garage that features more face kicks then Hollywood garnered all of last year, but it doesn’t sell the entire film. Action fans, however, will want to immediately purchase this film as Rittikrai never ceases to pull away from the brutal muay thai fighting and stunt work that made his career legendary and even adds a bit of John Woo gun fu into the mix for shits and giggles. This combination in itself sets Vengeance of an Assassin on a whole new level for Thai action – a statement that should have action fans drooling.

Written By Matt Reifschneider