Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Capsule Review: The Hangover (2009)

After a series of disappointments, director Todd Phillips struck fort knox with this ensemble comedy concerning four friends and their misadventures during a pre-wedding trip to Las Vegas. Much of the film is presented in flashback, as Phil (Bradley Cooper), Stu (Ed Helms) and Alan (Zach Galifianakis) desperately try to remember the events of the previous evening in the hopes of uncovering the whereabouts of the groom Doug (Justin Bartha) before the wedding. Phillips covers similar ground to his previous hit Old School, but it's the wildcard addition of the unpredictable Galifianakis that brings some life to the mostly familiar material. There are flashes of brilliance, particularly in some amusing cameos and supporting roles, but it's generally forgettable. The creators hope that lightning will strike twice with their upcoming anxiously anticipated sequel.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Saw IV, V and VI: Political Torture and The Saw Legacy

In my previous look at the Saw phenomenon - covering the first three films - I mentioned a personal fascination with film series' that go long, and the evolution that begins to occur within. I mused about some of the possibilities of how the Saw series might progress, possibly through introducing more humor (which may be welcome considering how deadly serious the series had been), or perhaps introducing a note of meta-commentary as a way of examining the omnipresence of the series as a whole. While the first point certainly never revealed itself - the only humor ever present is the sheer disbelief at the complexity of some of the murder devices - there is a touch of the second point in the series' 6th installment, which introduces a few "ripped from the headlines" elements regarding insurance companies and housing loan scams that were particularly topical at the time the film was made.

One element of the series that had already started to develop in the first three films, and certainly continued throughout the next three, was the progression of Jigsaw/John Kramer as a sort of sympathetic anti-hero. While his methods are obviously brutal, since the death of character in Saw III the films have begun filling in his back-story and revealing the demented, but concrete, method behind his madness. This softening - if you can call it that - is obviously intentional, and shows a recognition that Kramer (and Tobin Bell's continually terrific performance) are what the fans come to see. It also reflects a similar evolution to that which occurred in the Friday the 13th series, where many of the victims were introduced as despicable and unlikeable characters, so the crowd would get more satisfaction from their eventual gory deaths. Slasher films, somewhat incongruously, are often very puritanical, with excessive sexuality and drug use being punished by death. The crimes of the victims in the Saw series tend to be a little more complicated, but the idea has begun to be the same - while we develop an emotional connection, we're always at a distance thanks to their eventually revealed despicable behavior.

However, the common criticism involving the near comical levels of complexity regarding the death devices in the series has been replaced with the disbelief at the sheer level of back-story that has been able to be filled in. While the creators have been smart to - even peripherally - keep Jigsaw at the forefront of the films, it seems that there would have to be limits to what audiences would accept as elements that can be continually filled in. The web of events being weaved remains interesting, and I respect the filmmakers for taking small details from previous films and tying them into the greater picture, but by the end of this second trilogy of films it seems we've nearly reached the limit of this sort of retroactive

I will admit that the details of the individual films tend to run together in Saw IV, V and VI, as the muddle of flashbacks and "shock" reveals begin to take their toll. It also seems that we've passed the point of no return regarding the level of violence in these films - as the comparative restraint of the first two films has given way to an expectation of bloodshed that actually serves to reduce much of the film's suspense. If there's a device that is meant to mutilate someone, the filmmakers will inevitably be showing you the evisceration in grand detail - at least in some capacity. Anyone who has watched up to this point already realizes that nobody escapes unscathed, which is just how the audiences seem to like it.

Saw IV (2007) finds the series at a crossroads, though also finds the return of many of the players from the previous film - including director Darren Lynn Bousman (who helmed the previous two installments). The film's central and most interesting character is now dead, and since the film doesn't trade on supernatural elements, we're shown John Kramer's autopsy in revolting (though, I have to admit, fascinating) detail. However, Kramer/Jigsaw was plenty busy before his death recording seemingly dozens of tapes to make sure everyone tangentially related to his life would be affected in some way. Much of the running time is devoted to Lieutenant Rigg (Lyriq Bent), who - after finding the body of Detective Kerry from the previous film - finds himself obsessed with finding Eric Matthews (Donnie Wahlberg's character from the previous two films) to the point where he's sent home to recuperate mentally. Jigsaw - however - has taken this opportunity to run the officer through a series of different tests meant to challenge his obsessive behavior.

We're also introduced to FBI agents Peter Strahm (Scott Patterson) and Lindsey Perez (Athena Karkanis), who are diligently searching for clues regarding the fate of Jigsaw, while also attempting to track down the whereabouts of Riggs. They are assisted by Detective Hoffman (Costas Mandylor), who soon finds himself part of one of Jigsaw's trademark devices - also involving Matthews.

Got all that? The cast of characters has started to pile up - and I didn't even mention the increased presence of Kramer's wife Jill Tuck or the appearance of previous protagonist Jeff Denlon - but the real fascination here comes from the increased number of flashbacks to Kramer's pre-Jigsaw life. I usually get annoyed by such attempts at humanization, but Bell's performance is so subdued and strong that he's able to make these moments - involving his relationship with Jill and her eventual miscarriage - really carry some weight. Rigg's journey is less interesting, and serves mostly as a catalyst for the film's trademark "games" - which seem a little less imaginative than usual. I found the film's ending to be rather anticlimactic, though it seems to represent a rather obvious (and necessary) changing of the guard concerning the direction of the series. The final reveal - another series trademark - is quite effective, and sets the next film up nicely.

Saw V (2008) marks a minor change in direction for the series, as we now have a new antagonist who has shown to have existed in the background of all of the previous films. We also have a terrific beginning which shows Agent Strahm managing to save his own life by giving himself a tracheotomy with a pen (after finding himself trapped in what appeared to be Radiohead's "No Surprises" video). Unfortunately, the rest of the film isn't nearly as interesting, despite a new director (Saw series production designer David Hackel) and some memorably gory moments (particularly the Pit and the Pendulum-inspired pre-credits sequence).

Once again the flashbacks tend to be the most interesting part, as we see the apprentice's involvement in some of the more memorable moments of the previous films, as well as the beginnings of his relationship with the Jigsaw character. The big murder set pieces come from a central game featuring five new victims whose selfishness has indirectly led to the deaths of eight people. I mentioned in the previous article about the film's central premise bringing to mind the Vincenzo Natali's Cube, and the dynamic of that film is particularly evident in the series of tests experienced by the characters here. However, they are a prime example of the sort of barely sympathetic characters that the series now specializes in as cannon fodder for the distinctive traps.

The acting in the film is solid across the board - only the first Saw film has particularly egregious examples of bad performances - though I found myself totally unable to care about the Peter Strahm character and part of that is due to the hard-nosed performance of Scott Patterson. We discover later that Strahm is being set up as a possible suspect for the post-Jigsaw murders, but while this may explain why they don't properly develop his character it doesn't make for very interesting viewing. We also get one of the least interesting climaxes of the series, making this likely the weakest entry as a whole in the series up to this point.

Saw VI (2009) somewhat surprisingly proved to be a return to form thanks to a combination of factors, not the least of which was the decision to embrace the thematic elements that supporters of modern splatter had always suggested were evident - the reflection of real world concerns. While I wrote in the previous article about the dubious suggestion that the acceptance of real world torture in times of war was a motivating influence on the development of the "torture porn" genre, the choice to incorporate references to the mortgage crisis in the guise of the predatory lenders in the pre-credit sequence and the much more overt references to the loathsome practices of Insurance companies as related to the recent American health care debate give the film - which has a comparatively short production schedule - a real sense of timeliness.

It also serves to continue the trend of the last few films of softening the impact and tension of the various trials and games being presented by having those being tested be quite unsympathetic. With most of the supporting cast having been dispatched, we're left with a much more focused plot of watching Jigsaw's apprentice slowly get revealed thanks to some past sloppiness, as well as a series of brutal games being played by health insurance executive William Easton (Peter Outerbridge) - who became a target of Jigsaw after earlier turning down John Kramer's attempts to get experimental treatment for his cancer. There are some fairly big reveals throughout, and I was impressed by the complicated ending which serves to quite effectively bring the numerous disparate threads together.

Editor for all of the previous films in the series, director Kevin Greutert doesn't provide the flashy transitions of Darren Lynn Bousman, but does a good job of tying this stage of the storyline together, while leaving a few strands for whoever is called on to follow (which ended up being himself, since he's also the director of 2010's Saw 3D). While I mentioned that Easton's character made his eventual fate less than distressing due to his dubious morality, Outerbridge does a wonderful job of balancing his expected smarm and smugness (in the flashbacks) with his obvious desperation once trapped. Tobin Bell gets to show off a bit more emotion as well in his few scenes, though the series as a whole is starting to stagger with the weight of the new back-story being piled upon it.

Even now going into the seventh and (not likely) final film in the series, I can certainly appreciate the appeal of Jigsaw as a villain - who holds quite strongly to a particular personal moral code, despite putting the characters in these films through absolute agony. He quite quickly replaced the various antagonists as the heart and soul of this series, but by killing him off in the third film the filmmakers have presented themselves with quite a quandary - keep moving deeper into a back-story that is already starting to get ridiculous, or try and present a new set of players? While some of the creative forces in this series have bent the formula slightly, there must be a very real concern about tipping the apple-cart, though the success of the most recent film does show that this series still has potential - or at least there's still an audience for bleak and cynical bloodshed.

I plan on completing my view of this series with a final look at the most recent and possible final entry in the series, in which perhaps the creators will answer some of these concerns.

filmsquish.com 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die Blog Club

In conjunction with the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die project on this site, we're happy to be involved with the (re)launch of the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die Blog Club taking place at filmsquish.com. Look for more full length reviews of classic films, and check out filmsquish for plenty of alternate takes weekly.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

The Politics of the Walking Dead

I really feel sorry for you if you haven't bothered to check out the new AMC series, The Walking Dead. Not only is it absolutely terrifying, but it is also one of the most brilliantly written television shows I have had the pleasure to watch in quite a while.

This comes from a person who has all but given up on television thanks to the plague of reality television.

Heh. An apt analogy given the topic of discussion.. Anyway.

Thanks to the masterful storyline of AMC's newest masterpiece, the politics of the zombie are once again en vogue and the zombie once again takes its rightful place in the hallowed halls of proper scholarly discussion.

Don't laugh. I'm being serious!

In 1968, audiences were treated to what is undeniably one of the most influential horror films of all times; George Romero's Night of the Living Dead. Reviews were mixed, but it is my opinion that too many journalists focused too much on what was there on the screen rather than what the images on the screen were supposed to represent.

To put it bluntly, George Romero is the horror genre's own Mark Twain and Night of the Living Dead isn't so much about zombies as it is a scathing indictment of society at large.

In order to understand the basis of Romero's critique, you have to ask yourself one important question: What is it about zombies that scares the hell out of you?

Let's examine what makes zombies tick... so to speak....

Zombies are mindless creatures that only act in unison when they are attacking the living. Any connection to the identity they possessed while they were alive is long since forgotten in the haze of an undead quasi-consciousness.

Zombies represent the very worst incarnation of social conformity as well as the complete destruction of individualism and self-determination. The people in life who you once loved or respected are replaced with rotting shells whose single motivation is the overwhelming need to eat you alive.

After you die (provided that there is enough of you left to re-animate), you will rise up and join them in their task until every last living person is wiped off of the face of the earth.

The [REC] films put an interesting spin on this idea. Over the course of the movies, the audience eventually discovers that the zombies are not so much zombies in the traditional Romero sense as they are terrestrial extensions of a malevolent supernatural force.

Being "dead" in the [REC] movies not only means that you lose your free will; it also means that you lose your immortal soul.

Secondly, the zombie's hunger for human flesh and brain matter is a staple of horror cinema lore, but the dead cannot digest what they ingest.

Zombies don't eat because they are hungry; they eat for the sake of eating. Furthermore, unless zombies are in pursuit of a meal, they are content to meander about in the well documented shambling gait.

In short, zombies are the epitome of two of the Seven Deadly Sins; those being Sloth and Gluttony. It is no accident that Romero chose the zombie as the vehicle to criticize American society about its wanton fascination with consumerism.

Society's need to "have" is just as destructive to the body politic as the zombie's need to "eat." Neither impulse is driven by natural behavior and the satisfaction of that impulse usually takes a decidedly violent form.

If humans don't get what they want, they take it...

So do zombies... and both parties do this without consideration for supply.

Whether it be brains, cheeseburgers, or crude oil, the primary preoccupation of both human and zombie societies appears to be not only to take until there is nothing left; it is also to take without leaving something of value in return.

Whomever dies with the most toys wins and whomever is undead and eats the most brains wins.... sort of...

Romero's shopworn criticism of rampant consumerism is further coupled with a scalding critique of materialism and suburban flight in the 1978 sequel, Dawn of the Dead.

There is a specific reason why the primary set piece of this film is a shopping mall. Poor Zack Snyder did not figure that part out in his 2004 remake. Next time you watch the remake, listen very closely and you just may catch the sound of the "whoosh" of the principles of the first film sailing over his head.

Despite the ever present hordes of brain-sucking shufflers, the zombie itself is only part of the zombie film equation.

Zombies in zombie movies tend to be little more than set pieces and their menace usually serves only to speed up the pacing. It's not a zombie movie unless there are at least two or three good chase scenes.

And before you ask the question, my answer is "no." Zombies are not supposed to run.

The sensation of dread you feel during zombie movie chases comes from the awful realization that you are outnumbered.

Zombies don't have to chase after you because there is nowhere for you to hide. Their numbers will infest every nook and cranny in the world. The world doesn't belong to you anymore; it belongs to the shamblers and eventually they will find you.

They won't discover where you are because they are actively looking for you. They will find you simply because there will be no place on earth where they will not be present, and they will always be on the hunt because they will never rest.

Consequently, if you are a zombie at the time when the zombie apocalypse goes down, then your worries are usually over. The real story of any good zombie movie deals with how the death and undeath of civilization affects the survivors.

The tragic conclusion of Night of the Living Dead is nigh-legendary in the halls of horror cinema. The brave African American protagonist, Ben (Duane Jones), manages to survive the zombie onslaught only to be mistaken for a ghoul by a posse of rednecks, shot dead, and subsequently thrown onto a burning pyre.

In Dawn of the Dead, a biker gang shows up to the shopping mall to loot the stores and manages to become just as big of a menace to the survivors inside the mall as the zombies lurking outside.

28 Days Later (Come on now. It's a zombie movie when you think about it...) showcases a unit of psychotic British soldiers determined not only to outlast the infected hordes, but they also intend to repopulate the UK via a system of female sexual servitude.

Even, the survivors of the Day After in The Walking Dead painfully begin to realize that zombies are just another ornament on the Tree of Woe, as the series (in the true Romero-style edutainment spirit) tackles every socio-political hot button issue from racism (just like Night of the Living Dead did!) to spousal abuse.

Whether living or dead, the human monster is the most dangerous one of all.

I personally am very happy to see the return of the zombie film to its traditional role of catalyst for social commentary.

The discussions that these films generate, tragically enough, are timeless debates because the social inequalities that they address are as present as they ever were, and we should have these discussions while we still have time.

The cautionary moral of the zombie fable is that one morning when we least expect it, the last grain of sand in mankind's hourglass will fall and social divides will no longer be defined by have and have-not.

On one side, there will be the quick and on the other side.. there will be the dead..

On that advent of the undead armageddon, all men will find themselves on equal footing... whether they like it or not....

Free at last....

Free at last....

Monday, November 22, 2010

Saw I, II and III and the Art of Torture: A Retrospective

The problem with film criticism is that film critics are not robots. It's inevitable that when walking into the cinema that you're bringing along all of the predjudices, irritations, and emotions that come with simply living day to day as a human being, and these inevitably will cloud the way that you interpret the movie that you see. The person you are today may resemble the person you'll be tomorrow, but you're still different from that person in a million, almost incalculable ways, and this person may view the world - and the art within it - very differently.

I am an emotional person. I find the process of watching a film to be an emotional experience, which is why my feelings are sometimes at odds with the sterile deconstruction often necessary when writing about movies. I'm also the type of person who enjoys keeping up on film news, box office grosses, rumors and all of those other things which so often get in the way of me enjoying my little hobby, so naturally I often have certain expectations when going into a movie which are unfair to the film, and the amount of work that has gone into it. With that in mind, I often don't write thoughts on a film until i've allowed myself a bit of emotional distance, and quite often even avoid films that are surrounded by emotion and/or hype until I feel like I remove myself from these outside elements.

With that in mind, I decided to finally tackle a series of films that have provoked particularly strong reactions, both positive and negative, but in any case have proven to be a license to print money for its creators and producers. The Saw franchise was born out of the classic hollywood dream: two film school friends who pool together money to shoot a short film based on a wider concept, who then shop it around to try and get funding for a feature length version to be written by the pair, shot by one and featuring the other in a major role. This eventual low-budget film somehow captures the cultural zeitgeist of the time and becomes a blockbuster hit, spawning dozens of imitators and a slew of follow-ups. Even while being lapped up by an enthusiastic audience, the films were condemned as exercises in depravity and cited as one of the prime examples of "torture porn" - a title given to films that seem to wallow in violence while focusing on the suffering of their protagonists. 

I've avoided these films, just as I've avoided the similar films which followed that were roundly criticized since there was so many strong emotions around them that it seemed like it would be impossible to appreciate any qualities that they may or may not have with these influences ringing in my ears. However, as the series passes its seventh installment - which initially promised to be its last, but whose success likely suggests otherwise - I decided it was time to dive in and see what all the fuss is really about. I'll admit that as a teenager I was a total gore-hound, and even as my tastes in film and filmmakers was developing I never really lost my taste for cinematic violence, despite being a particularly non-violent and unassuming person in my personal life who finds real-life violence to be deplorable. 

This article covers only the first three films in the series, which I understand to make up a minor trilogy in the greater scheme of the films as a whole. I do plan to continue to watch the rest of the films, and with no small amount of enthusiasm, even if I feel a measure of guilt for my enjoyment of something that is so obviously bad for me. Or do I only feel that way because of my expectations of what I should feel? I never felt bad enjoying Ruggero Deodato's Cannibal Holocaust (well maybe when they killed that sea turtle), or the endless supply of Italian Zombie films which arrived in the wake of Dawn of the Dead, so what makes me feel this way now? I can't imagine that it's maturity.

Saw (2004) was originally meant to go straight-to-DVD, and even in its present form resembles many of the low-budget horror films that pop up randomly on video store shelves. It's rough around the edges - particularly in its acting, which ranges from dull (Danny Glover's disinterested and raspy performance), to irritating (co-creater and writer Leigh Whannell's high pitched whine), to.. whatever the heck Cary Elwes was doing, and director James Wan seems to be piecing his visual style together as he goes - though is obviously influenced by the harsh lighting and disturbed tone of David Fincher's Seven

The plot has a great low-budget hook - two strangers are trapped in a dark, filthy bathroom - chained to the floor with a corpse laying between them. Within the room are clues to both their imprisonment as well as their release, but they will have to test their own will in various awful ways in order to free themselves. Their captor calls himself Jigsaw, and appears to his victims in the guise of a pale, creepy dummy, and who has taken it upon himself to play a series of often bafflingly complicated games which often end in scenes of astounding violence. The two men - played by Cary Elwes and Leigh Whannell - have to work together, even as Jigsaw pits them against one another, while their connections are further revealed in a series of flashbacks, including those that involve Detective David Tapp's (Danny Glover) attempts to capture Jigsaw.

Less polished and (significantly) less violent than its sequels, the first Saw film seems much more interested in its concept - and the interactions of its players - than the violent set pieces, though gets plenty of mileage out of Jigsaw's tendency to force its participants to harm themselves in order to escape - one of the key concepts is that the chained characters are expected to saw through their own legs to escape. These moments are generally realized in the pained expressions of the characters rather than close-ups of bodies being torn apart, though this is likely a result of the low-budget rather than design. Unfortunately, these interactions tend to often be rather ridiculous - particularly the extended scenes of Elwes and Whannel slowly figuring out clues that seem at least partially obvious to all but the slowest audience members. 

It's still an effective concept, however, and Jigsaw - as voiced and played by veteran actor Tobin Bell - makes for a creepy and effective villain. At its center, Saw is a mystery film, and the audience eventually learns how these disparate characters are connected, and why they have been chosen to go through these ordeals. The build up gets a bit tiring - Detective Tapp's character serves little purpose aside from occasionally getting us out of the room - but the actual climax is very well done, with a slew of information and previous images and quotes melding together as a sense of realization washes over the audience. It's all a bit too messy to be very good, but a good hook and a strong ending can get you pretty far, and to that end I can see why it found an audience. Even while getting a bit sick of things, the ending made me feel a bit enthusiastic about moving on to the film's sequel.

Saw II (2005) had the difficult task of upping the ante on the first film, while still sticking to the elements which made it successful. Darren Lynn Bousman inherits the reigns, and his slick visual style which focuses on smooth transitions between scenes - along with a deep commitment to violent set pieces - serves this film well. Former New Kid Donnie Wahlberg stars as officer Eric Matthews, who interacts one-on-one with the cancer-ridden Jigsaw as he watches a group of people - which include his son Daniel - attempt to escape a trap-filled house before the nerve gas being pumped through the air vents kills them all.

The set pieces are bigger, and the larger number of characters and bigger stage means that the film is less reliant on the interplay between the actors, though thankfully the acting quality has risen significantly as well. Wahlberg - who has proven himself a capable actor in productions like Band of Brothers and The Sixth Sense - actually does a great job in the lead, capably showing a character both passionate and filled with rage, and his verbal sparring with Bell provides some of the films highlights. The assembled players within the house don't have much to do besides look sick, angry and/or worried and then die in awful ways, but they all do this quite effectively.

Along with the bigger budget comes bigger - and impossibly complex - torture devices. One of the common criticisms of the series is an inability to suspend disbelief because of simply how complex some of the schemes become, but I grew up on slasher films inevitably featuring a teleporting mass-murderer, so i'll cut it some slack. The violence is definitely more pronounced, but the interplay of those stuck in the house reminded me of Vincenzo Natali's Cube and Bousman keeps things moving, even if it's hardly very scary. The climax throws another big twist at the audience, but while it apes the reveal of the first film it's a bit more convoluted and therefore not as effective. Still, on the whole I think this is a superior film.

Saw III (2006) brings back director Darren Lynn Bousman, who chooses a more meandering story for much of the running time while focusing much more intently on often excruciating scenes of violence. From the opening scene of Detective Matthews (Whalberg, returning briefly) hobbling himself, things are bleak and don't lighten up for the entirety of the nearly two hour running time (on the unrated edition). People are twisted, frozen, shot, and ripped apart in exacting detail, and most of the interplay that typified the two previous films seems to have vanished.

The film's first half deals with Jigsaw - close to death from a brain tumor - attempting to, along with his new assistant, force a young doctor to operate on him. Much of the second follows a revenge obsessed grieving father (Angus Macfadyen) who is put through a series of tests putting him face to face with the driver who killed his son. There is interesting material, and Jigsaw is presented much more sympathetically than in the previous films, but the sheer volume of unpleasantness tends to outweigh any meditations on revenge and obsession.

The acting isn't as shaky as in the first film, but is also less reliable than in the second with Angus Macfadyen and Shawnee Smith so internally tortured and intense that it's hard to get involved with their respective ordeals. Tobin Bell is obviously the series' MVP, and he's terrific once again, though the complex nature of the various devices continue to be a bit hard to swallow. The film's ending is convoluted, and a bit predictable, but is certainly appropriately messy. At this point everyone involved seems to know that there will be more to come, and the groundwork is laid for future installments.

I find myself fascinated with the evolution of film series as they continue, particularly in the horror genre which - when faced with the need to top itself - tends to rapidly go in the direction of violence rather than scares. The Friday the 13th and Nightmare on Elm Street series introduced elements of comedy and (eventually) meta-commentary, but the Saw series is simply adding upon its own mythology while piling on moments of gut-turning unpleasantness and bleakness. 

Much has been made of the connection between the increased violence and scenes of agony in these films with the depravity involved with the War in Iraq and the torture of prisoners at Guantanamo Bay. It's possible that we all simply had torture on the brain, but equally concerning is the idea that perhaps audience members - particularly teenagers, for whom this series is obviously aimed - are able to easily relate to the dourness and bleakness which define the horror films in the mid-2000s. This might be overstating things, though the increased success of the films (and enthusiasm from its core audience) shows a group that has obviously been hungering for what these films deliver. 

As the series continues, I find myself curious about what direction it can possibly go in. The recent film being released in 3D shows a commitment to the gimmicks which were popular in 80s horror cinema, but these films don't seem to lend themselves to the lightness (and emotional distance) that such gimmicks can provide. Perhaps audiences cheer the results of Jigsaw's creations, just as my generation cheered Jason Voorhees slaughtering teens with a machete, and get the same visceral release, but simply on a slicker and more graphic level. I suppose i'll have to see for myself, as i'm off to watch the next three films, the very act of which seems to prove that there's something elusively appealing about these films and what they represent. Perhaps by the time I finish i'll be able to identify it.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Capsule Review: Blackmail (1929)

blackmail posterOften considered the first British talky (and certainly the first to make extensive use of sound recorded on set) Alfred Hitchcock was actually filming a silent adaptation of Charles Bennett’s play when John Maxwell of British International Pictures asked him to film sections in sound. Instead, Hitchcock re-filmed almost the entire film ,which is why there are two versions of the film that now exist. After killing a would-be rapist, Alice White (Anny Ondra – who was dubbed on set by Joan Barry) flees the scene, only to have the incident discovered by her Police Detective boyfriend Frank Webber (John Longden) who helps her until  thief Tracey (Donald Calthrop) tries to blackmail the couple. While fairly straightforward plot-wise, many of Hitchcock’s trademark flourishes are on display: from moments of tremendous black humor, a climax featuring a famous landmark (in this case the British Museum), and one of Hitchcock’s most pronounced cameos. He also makes great use of his new tool, particularly during a breakfast scene where Alice’s guilt is magnified by the conversation becoming a blur of sound, with the word “knife” continually stabbing through. Great fun, and a sign of Hitchcock’s true arrival.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Capsule Review: Inglourious Basterds (2009)

inglourious-basterds-posterAfter a set of films mythologizing the exploitation films of his youth, you could be forgiven for thinking that Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds – which was initially presented as a remake of Enzo G. Castellari’s 1978 Dirty Dozen rip-off The Inglorious Bastards – would continue the trend. Instead, while the film embraces the gritty set pieces of war films (and includes a references to Castellari’s films and others) it’s a strikingly brave and original piece that shows Tarantino’s writing – this time being delivered by an international cast of actors – has evolved significantly. Initial audiences – particularly during its debut at Cannes – seemed confused by the revisionist World War II tale, but upon release it was immediately embraced, particularly the  performance of Christoph Walz who walks away with his scenes as the “Jew Hunter” Col. Hans Landa and nabbed a best supporting actor Oscar for the role. While the long scenes of dialogue seemed to get tiresome in his previous film Death Proof, here they build to moments of incredible tension with some immediate (and often violent) payoff. Tarantino’s best film since Pulp Fiction.

Capsule Review: Bus 174 (2002)

imagesA tense stand-off between police and a gunmen who has taken hostages on a bus in Rio de Janeiro on June 12th 2000 becomes a meditation on media, urban violence, prison conditions, political manoeuvring and plenty of other thought-provoking topics in José Padilha and Felipe Lacerda’s incredible documentary. The film continually flashes to the confrontation – shown live on television – as the armed Sandro do Nascimento threatens violence against a group of women, while also examining Sandro’s tragic upbringing and the culture of violence that exists in the street community in which he was raised. The film raises conflicting emotions as you both sympathize and villainize the young man who has experienced so much tragedy in his short life, while your frustration inevitably grows at the police who seem unwilling or unable to do anything to stop the proceedings. Things get unbearably tense as the confrontation comes to a head, and you’ll likely be left shaking your head at what you’ve seen. A thought provoking and powerful film.

Capsule Review: Anvil! The Story of Anvil (2008)

Anvil The Story of AnvilRock and Roll has provided great material for documentaries for decades, but the elements that make up these documentaries have been examined and parodied so often that it’s difficult to take a lot of the manufactured conflict and resolution seriously. But just when you think the genre has been tapped for all it’s worth – I felt that way after the Metallica documentary Some Kind of Monster – a film like this comes along to give you a bit of faith in the redemptive power of rock music. Presented as sort of a real life This Is Spinal Tap (some of the interview segments are obviously supposed to bring that film to mind, and there are memorable shots of an amplifier going to 11, as well as the requisite trip to Japan), the film follows Canadian 80s metal band Anvil as they attempt one more shot at the fame they had 20 years earlier when they shared the stage with luminaries like Scorpions and Bon Jovi. Sometimes depressing, often hilarious, we get a backstage pass for a disastrous European tour, in-fighting (between original members Steve "Lips" Kudlow and drummer Robb Reiner) and attempts to record and market their 13th album This Is Thirteen. It doesn’t take a love (or even like) of heavy metal music to enjoy the rare insight into the struggles of two men desperate to keep doing the thing that they love, even as musical trends and their own bodies seem to be working against them.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Capsule Review: Paranormal Activity (2007)

Paranormal_Activity_posterNearly a decade after The Blair Witch Project took the film world by storm, the found footage genre exploded once again with the release of this micro ($15,000) budget  shocker. Utilizing a simple but ingenious concept – a couple decide to videotape themselves sleeping to attempt and witness unusual behaviour – the film takes two strong performances and some minor but effective special effects and manages to create an appropriately creepy and unpredictable atmosphere. Repeat viewings may not reap similar rewards, but director Oren Peli deserves credit for knowing just what buttons to push and manages to create some memorably shocking images considering the necessarily stationary camera. Followed by a more flashy but less effective sequel, and a bevy of imitations.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

The Green Slime (1968)

This is a rather big cheat, as though i'm writing this for the Wildgrounds Japanese Blogathon it's actually an international production - though co-produced by Toei Company and lensed in Japan - with an entirely English speaking cast. That said, it was directed by the late, great Kinji Fukasaku (who had a long career directing genre films, but might be best known for helming Battle Royale) and features plenty of miniature special effects by Toei's usual Godzilla film crew, so i'm thinking it should still count. Add in the fact that The Green Slime has just been released in beautiful widescreen through the great folks at the Warner-Archive and I don't think the timing could be much better. Considering how long the film has only been available in muddy, painfully cropped VHS versions, this new version is practically a revelation.

Which isn't to say that this film is sterling. Even compared to the rough approximation of science expected in sci-fi films of the time, this one will consistently be having you scratch your heads. Despite coming out the same year as 2001: A Space Odyssey, the special effects in The Green Slime are more than a little rough around the edges, though have plenty of goofy charm. When you see a space station burning in space, sending smoke spiraling upwards you sort of just have to go with it. Combine with performances that run the gamut from stiff to uptight, and settings that represent that special 1960s view of the future (go-go boots, miniskirts and lots of flashing lights) and you're in for a very specific kind of pleasure.

It's the future and Commander Jack Rankin (Robert Horton) is pulled out of his impending retirement when some brainy science people at the United Nations Space Command discover an asteroid headed towards planet earth. Jack is plenty conflicted about his past - particularly his former friendship with Commander Vince Elliott (Richard Jaeckel from The Dirty Dozen) - but accepts the (apparently suicide) mission to plant charges on the asteroid, despite having to prepare for the mission on space station Gamma-3, which is currently Commanded by.. Vince Elliott. Are you getting all of this?

To make things even more complicated, Vince's current fiancée is Dr. Lisa Benson who used to be Jack's gal and still has rather obvious feelings for him, much to the perpetually intense Vince's chagrin. Despite the hard feelings, Vince volunteers to join the mission and the group successfully carry out their mission thanks to some heroics from Rankin. However, the scientist guy they brought along found a green slimy life form on the planet, and accidentally brought some of it back with him. You may be wondering if this slime feeds off electricity and rapidly grow into tentacled creatures that run amuck around the space station, and your suspicions would be correct.

Despite in-fighting, Jack and Vince decide to corral the creatures - who have the ability to heal themselves and procreate from a drop of blood - into a section of the space station and blow it up real good. When this proves only to litter the side of Gamma-3 with the creatures - realized in one of the film's crummier effects - Rankin makes the decision to evacuate the space station before demolishing the whole thing. There are lots of rubber suits, heroic sacrifices, and plenty of the titular green slime to go around.

I mentioned the goofy charm of the special effects in this and other late 60s Toho monster movies, and while this one doesn't have the wholesale destruction evident in the Godzilla movies of the time, there's still plenty of impressive (though totally unconvincing) model-work to be seen here. The actual green slime creatures are pretty terrific, with waving tentacles (often with visible guidelines) and a giant red eye that can blink, though we never see more than a handful on-screen (except for the rather poor looking shots of the outside of Gamma-3). Gamma-3 itself looks like something out of The Thunderbirds, and while it looks ok when it's spinning silently in the cosmos, once you add smoke and fire to the equation it's a bit difficult to take seriously - especially with a very visible wire holding it up. 

While the actual plot has echoes of many 50s science-fiction films - the unkillable creatures in a remote location bring to mind The Thing From Another World, while the character of the scientist whose wish to study the creature ends up nearly killing us all is a staple of the genre- the film's biggest flaw is that the main characters are simply too unpleasant. While Rankin is shown to be tough-as-nails and a quick thinker, he's also ego-maniacal and makes nearly as many bad decisions as Vince, who is a perpetual screw-up throughout. Luciana Paluzzi (best known as Fiona Volpe in Thunderball) as Lisa is certainly attractive, but is particularly unconvincing as a doctor (what is she doing with that stethoscope?). While the performances are stiff - and not helped by the sometimes shaky dubbing - the leads are fine, it's just the characters who have difficulty holding interest.

Blame for this has to go to the committee of television and b-movie writers who collaborated on the script, including Batman co-creator Bill Finger, who weighed down a fun, pulpy adventure film with unnecessary melodrama and cardboard characters. Director Fukasaku does the best he can keeping things moving, but it's sometimes at the expense of continuity as i'm still not quite sure I fully grasp some of the crew's plans in the final half hour. Much can be forgiven, however, thanks to the inclusion of one of the very best science fiction theme songs ever. Composed by Charles Fox, the psychedelic song plays over the opening credits and it is outstanding. The film's actual score is comparatively subdued, though is occasionally inappropriately cartoonish during what should be rather tense scenes. 

When developing the concept for what would eventually become Mystery Science Theater 3000 the creators used segments from The Green Slime to exhibit the kind of fun but ridiculous films they would be featuring, and it's easy to see why it was chosen. Full of ridiculous dialogue played totally straight and plenty of fun monsters and explosions, the film takes itself just seriously enough to remain enjoyable fun despite flat characters and inconsistent special effects. Lots to love for fans of monster movies, and thankfully given a wonderful looking DVD release that shows off its dated - but still wonderfully enjoyable - style.

Friday, November 5, 2010

Fish Story (2009)


The blurb on the back of the DVD cover reads: "FISH STORY weaves together several seemingly separate storylines taking place at different points in time over a 37-year span to explain how a little punk rock song can save the world." That's an intriguing premise, for sure. Can a song save the world? If you're going into this film, you're probably thinking, "yes, yes it can," since it's unlikely that someone will make a film about how a song can't save the world. And you'd be right.


What's perhaps quite surprising is the way that the song--performed by Gekirin (Wrath) and entitled "Fish Story"--manages to pull off this particular bit of salvation. This isn't a metaphoric or poetic saving of the world; people don't get together to sing it, fighting back injustice, oppression, etc., in the face of adversity. No, "Fish Story," the song, manages to directly influence events in just such a way that Earth's inevitable demise is staved off. Thank god for that.

But I'm getting ahead of myself. FISH STORY begins in 2012, with a comet hurdling towards Earth. This isn't the same premise as ARMAGEDDON--this is a deliberate ripoff of ARMAGEDDON. Even the plan to save the world is similar. In any event, instead of worrying about the future, one young man decides to go to the record store, and pick up an old album, which features--you guessed it!--"Fish Story." And so the tale of that song begins to unfold...


First we travel back to 1982, where a shy and submissive young'un named Masahi is introduced to "Fish Story" by his incredibly annoying and abusive 'friends.' Masahi (Gaku Hamada), chauffeuring his friends to a rendezvous, overhears that "Fish Story" is haunted; indeed, it has 60 seconds of silence, right in the middle of the track. The tape (remember, this is the 80s) warns that this isn't an error--the silence is deliberately there. But, his friend explains, some people don't hear silence. Some hear a woman screaming! And if you happen to be that someone, well, watch out, cuz your days are numbered. Not only is this a great urban legend, but it sounds exactly like the plot of so many recent J-horrors.

So, what happens to Masahi? Unfortunately, this is one of those films where, to explain it, I'd essentially be ruining the ending. You're not provided with the end of Masahi's story, before we time-travel to 2009, and a mini action movie/love story set on a boat, with a hero who has been specially trained (since birth) to fuck dudes up. Kind of like Steven Seagal's UNDER SEIGE. But not as good. And then--whiz, bang--we're back in 1975, to see how "Fish Story" was recorded in the first place. All the while, we keep checking back in to 2012, where--you guessed it!--a group of international astronauts have hatched a scheme to explode that naughty comet. Way to go, fellas!


Far and away the strongest part of the film is the final, oldest story: the 1975 genesis of the song that the whole movie revolves around. The actors are believable as a band, and not only a band, but a punk rock band. And that's hard to pull off; an actor with some ratty clothes and funny hair usually just looks like a fucking poser. More to the point, the actual song, "Fish Story," is an incredibly catchy piece of punk rock.

As you can probably tell, none of the individual sections of the movie provide the viewer with anything new. The journey of a submissive guy growing a pair, a hostage-taking and ass-kicking scenario, an unpopular band fighting to find its voice, a doomed planet--this is all tried and true stuff. Yoshihiro Nakamura's FISH STORY succeeds above all odds, because somehow it does make it all work. But you have to wait until the very last moment of the film. Until then, everything just kind of hangs there, tenuously. The film isn't helped by the fact that it, like a few recent Japanese films I've encountered (I'm thinking of LOVE EXPOSURE) looks like it was shot on the cheap, for a local cable channel. OK, that's probably an exaggeration; the best I can say is that the film itself doesn't look cinematic. It looks more like a soap opera. Still, FISH STORY tells a good yarn; like its namesake, a very regular tale (the story of a song) becomes bigger. And bigger. And bigger...

Dororo (2007)

Back home in Japan, the late Osamu Tezuka was known as the God of Manga and you don't get a title like that without being one helluva storyteller.

Tezuka-san's stories have followed me all of my life and I am a better person for it. As I child and later as a teenager, I yearned for respect much like Kimba the White Lion and as a father I have pondered the mistakes of Professor Tenma from Astro Boy and have learned the true value of fatherhood and will always appreciate the blessings that come with raising a child.

In 2006, I heard that Dororo was going to be made into a feature length film. That bothered me because I wasn't terribly sure how well Tezuka would translate into live-action. The animated versions of Astro Boy and Kimba the White Lion were entertaining enough kiddie fare, but they really weren't allowed to explore the depths that Tezuka did in the manga.

As a motion picture, Dororo has quite a bit going for it but it suffers from some of the same issues that Blood: The Last Vampire did.

The actual premise of Dororo is quite fascinating and seems to take cues from nearly every Shakespearian or Greek tragedy worth its salt.

The tale begins in feudal Japan with the warlord Kagemitsu Daigo (Kiichi Nakai) suffering a horrible military defeat. Kagemitsu seeks shelter in a remote temple and in his rage and despair, makes a pact with 48 evil spirits. He agrees to give each spirit (referred to as a demon in the English subtitles but more in flavor with the yōkai of traditional folklore than the demonic oni) permission to take one of the body parts of his unborn son in exchange for dominion over his enemies.

As a result, Kagemitsu's son is born with no limbs or facial features to speak of. In despair, Kagemitsu's wife sets their child adrift along a river in a style befitting Moses of Old Testament fame and the child is eventually plucked from the jaws of death by Dr. Honma (Yoshio Harada, whom some will recognize from Rônin-gai and the Christopher Lambert ninja vehicle, The Hunted).

Honma is no ordinary doctor; he specializes in alchemy and in yet another Tezuka plot device inspired by Frankenstein, Honma roams the country side and collects the dead bodies of children butchered in village raids during Kagemitsu's return to power. Honma then distills the corpses and uses the essence to create prosthetic devices that will allow Kagemitsu's heir apparent to function as a normal human being.

But Honma doesn't stop there. His final procedure gives the child use of a pair of magical swords grafted to his forearms and hidden away by his prosthetic hands. Eventually, the yōkai track the child down and kill Dr. Honma while trying to eliminate Kagemitsu's heir and then the story begins in earnest as Kagemitsu's heir (who eventually earns the name "Hyakkimaru" and is played by heartthrob, Satoshi Tsumabuki) embarks on a quest to kill the 48 yōkai and regain his lost humanity.

The hitch being that every time Hyakkimaru kills a yōkai, part of him returns to flesh and blood. As he regains his humanity, Hyakkimaru loses the invulnerability and preternatural ability afforded to him by his magical prosthetics.

If you're thinking, "So it is like a jidai-geki version of Edward Scissorhands," you would not be too far off of the mark.

The titular "Dororo" (Kou Shibasaki) is a tough yet sensitive ingénue thief who runs afoul of Hyakkimaru while he is in pursuit of a jorōgumo (a type of yōkai who can take the shape of a beautiful woman, but whose true form is that of a monstrous spider) which claimed one of Hyakkimaru's legs as its price for lending its aid to Kagemitsu.

Like Hyakkumaru, Dororo "earns" her name rather than simply being born with one. She remains unfazed by the fact that Hyakkimaru is actually insulting her when he refers to her as "Dororo" (which supposedly means "little monster") or perhaps she doesn't care. It seems a small price to pay in exchange for a life of danger and excitement.

The rest of the film alternates through several misadventures with a portion of the other yōkai and concludes with the inevitable showdown between Hyakkimaru and his father, Kagemitsu.

There is a part of me that really wants to fall in love with this movie. The dynamic between Hyakkimaru and Dororo is interesting as they both take turns protecting and mentoring one another. Dororo teaches Hyakkimaru what it is to be human, while Hyakkimaru has to teach Dororo that there is more to appreciate about life other than material wealth.

Dororo finds that lesson insulting as Hyakkimaru is protected from the hardships of poverty. As a homunculus of sorts, Hyakkimaru doesn't need to eat, so he can't appreciate how horrible it is to go hungry. Should Hyakkimaru succeed in killing Kagemitsu, he'll be the heir to Kagemitsu's throne so Hyakkimaru can't appreciate what it is to be poor.

The problem that plagues Dororo is the same one that plagues the previously mentioned (and reviewed) Blood: The Last Vampire and that is laughable special effects. The yōkai in the movie alternately are represented by actors in ridiculous costumes, cringe-inducing models, or some of the most underwhelming CGI since The Mummy Returns. It really is regrettable that such a potentially powerful story is undermined by this technical issue.

The yōkai are a key element of the plotline so you'd think that they'd be presented in a manner proportionate to their relative importance to the story. They don't necessarily have to be so terrifying as to generate nightmares, but you'd hope that a respectable part of the budget would be spent making the yōkai as impressive as possible.

But, we're talking about Japan here; the nation who made an art form out of guys dressed in rubber lizard suits smashing their way though cardboard mock-ups of Tokyo.

The unintentional humor injected in the story by the chuckle-worthy yōkai provides moments of levity which serve the admirable purpose of keeping Dororo from collapsing under the weight of absolute despair (there are some scenes in the movie which are genuinely touching) but even so, it'd be nice if the yōkai provided a bit more menace.

I'm not so dense as not to recognize deliberate camp when I see it. I just think that the profound parts of this movie serve us better than the humorous ones. Dororo is a tale of the struggle between the giving of one's self versus the sacrifice of others to serve one's own selfish desires and that is a timeless morale that everyone should try to appreciate.

Oh, and don't get me wrong. I wouldn't have watched this movie if not for the promise of a swordfight or two and Ching Siu-Tung's over-the-top action scenes help smooth over some of the rankled feathers raised by the CGI. There is ample bloodshed that will easily satisfy your inner gore hound.

It should probably go without saying but Hyakkimaru only tracks down about half of the yōkai during the course of this particular movie, so the promise of sequels is out there. I'd actually like to see how the tale (and the relationship between Dororo and Hyakkimaru) progresses, so here's hoping that a follow-up film comes out very soon.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Kyonyû doragon: Onsen zonbi vs sutorippâ 5 (The Big Tits Dragon) (2010)

Part of the oddly popular "stripper vs zombie" sub-genre (which also includes Zombie Strippers! (2008) and Zombies! Zombies! Zombies! (2008)),  Kyonyû doragon: Onsen zonbi vs sutorippâ 5 - also known by a multitude of increasingly offensive titles - may originate from the manga Kyonyū Dragon by Rei Mikamoto, but it's obviously heavily influenced by the recent slate of ultra-violent low-budget Japanese exploitation films like Machine Girl and Tokyo Gore Police, as well as Quentin Tarantino's Grindhouse and Kill Bill whose attempts at a modern exploitation rebirth are echoed in the spaghetti western references of the soundtrack, and in its deliberately aged and scratched opening credits. With a title like this you probably know what you're in for, and thankfully director Takano Nakano (who also helmed the wonderfully titled Sexual Parasite: Killer Pussy (2004)) seems to feel obligated to deliver the goods. 

We begin with a grammatically iffy lift of the title card from Sergio Leone's For a Few Dollars More, and you could be excused for beginning to grow concerned about the quality control already on display. Thankfully such concerns are pushed to the wayside as we're thrown into an immediate bloody fray between the chainsaw wielding Lena Jodo (Japanese AV star Sola Aoi) and a hoard of zombies of surprisingly varying quality. We very quickly get an idea of what we're going to be in for over the next 73 minutes - lots of CG-assisted splatter and flying limbs in the mold of Troma films, and with a winking sense of humor lest you get concerned that a film also known as Big Tit Zombies might get a bit too dark.

The plot follows Lena - newly arrived back in Japan after a booze-fueled trip through Mexico (she carries a sombrero and some obvious Spaghetti Western undertones) - as she gets a job stripping at the Paradise Ikagawa Theater, along with former criminal Ginko (AV star Risa Kasumi), Gothic Lolita Maria (Gravure idol Mari Sakurai), money obsessed Dana (Io Aikawa) and the older Nene (Tamayo). After a temporary closing due to lack of business, the five find themselves incredibly bored and begin working at a local Spa to make some extra money. Thankfully they manage to find a secret door in the dressing room which leads to a room that includes both a Well of Spirits and a Necronomicon, which Maria (who is constantly quoting Shakespeare and Rochefoucauld) wastes no time in using to bring the dead to life. These are the shuffling, bite-one-and-you-become-one type of zombies, and soon the town is overrun.

Dana gets eaten rather quickly, but while Lena, Ginko and a newly bitten Nene attempt to escape, Maria gleefully accepts life as a zombie queen. We soon discover that Ginko holds a horrible secret involving her time in prison, while Nene develops a fire-spouting vagina - quelled by a quick gun blast to the head. Lena and Ginko decide to seal up the Well of Spirits, but they'll have to contend with Maria, the puppet head of zombie Dana (simultaneously both the film's worst and most enjoyable effect) and a slew of zombies. Oh, and as expected they lose their tops a couple of times each as well.

It might be excessive to mention that the film's proceedings take place with tongue pressed firmly through cheek, but I was actually impressed with some of the sharp writing on display - particularly in Maria's ridiculous Lolita character who takes time to explain the political themes of Romero's Night of the Living Dead, and refers to a severed hand as an "ultimate wrist slitting" (Maria is earlier shown to be a cutter, and her Goth love is a constant source of amusement). There are purely bizarre moments: zombie sushi, eyeball ping-pong, battling an extended zombie tongue with wasabi paste, but they all contribute to the unhinged, anything-can-happen atmosphere. 

While slow to get going - at least after the opening scene which nearly repeats in full at the film's end - the pace builds nicely to an impressive final half hour, even as the quality of the special effects starts to get a bit sketchy. Visual effects are by Tsuyoshi Kazuno, who also worked on Machine GirlRoboGeisha, and similar projects, and if you've seen the copious ridiculous visual effects in those films you probably know what to expect. As a director Nakano is inconsistent, though he's obviously willing to accept his limitations and manages to fit in a few moody shots when he's not zooming into his cast's cleavage. This is obviously quick and dirty filmmaking, though has a similar anarchic spirit to earlier film's like the Guitar Wolf starring Wild Zero.

Acting awards go to Sola Aoi in the lead - she brings a lot of charisma and energy to a role that demands it - and Mari Sakurai who brings a fun twist to the villain role. Risa Kasumi is attractive, but is a bland performer and looks uncomfortable and stiff during her action scenes. She's also saddled with the only thing resembling drama in the film, but unfortunately doesn't exude the toughness needed for the role. Watch out for comedian Minoru Torihada who pops up briefly at the film's end.

I should mention that this film was also released in a 3D version, though I've read only a handful of short sequences that take advantage of the format - with a countdown that appears on the screen when necessary. I doubt you'll be missing much watching this in 2D, but if you want to get the full Big Tits Dragon experience you'll need to pony up for that edition.

An intentionally goofy and gleefully rough around the edges gorefest, Kyonyû doragon: Onsen zonbi vs sutorippâ 5 wraps the requisite amount of laughs, breasts and blood into its brief run time. While obviously saddled by budgetary limitations and the casting of porno actresses in some of the lead roles, there is enough demented chaos on display to keep all but the most jaded viewer from cracking a smile. At the very least it delivers exactly what it promises, and there's certainly nothing wrong with that.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Capsule Review: Rocky (1976)

I have to confess that - while i've always had a soft spot for underdog sports stories - I wasn't going into Rocky with much hope beyond some acceptable, possibly bland entertainment. Imagine my surprise when - like with a recent viewing of First Blood - instead of the glossy, emotionally manipulative film I was expecting I got a nuanced, often gritty view of working class heroics. Sylvester Stallone - who also wrote - gives a performance so strong that it seems near impossible to separate from his actual persona, while he's given terrific support from series mainstays Burt Young, Talia Shire and - most of all - Burgess Meridith. Director John G. Avildsen holds the reigns, but this is Stallone's show all the way, and like the titular character he seems determined to make the most of his shot. The series eventually turned into a parody of itself - though returned to form for 2006's Rocky Balboa - but even the moments that have long become cliche still contain significant power.

Capsule Review: The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (1970)

Struggling writer Sam Dalmas (Tony Musante) is living in Italy when he witnesses a brutal assault at an art gallery, but gets trapped between two glass partitions while the attacker gets away. While initially reluctant to get involved, the police are convinced that Sam's memory holds an important detail that could lead to the identity of the killer, who is stalking and murdering young women in the city. Sam soon becomes obsessed with revealing the mystery, even as the killer starts to target Sam's young wife. Referring to the "yellow" covers on the pulp crime novels that influenced the genre, "giallo" films mixed Hitchcockian suspense with lurid genre trappings and stylish murder set pieces brought to life by a new wave of Italian filmmakers in the 1970s. While not the first to develop this style - Mario Bava was obviously a big influence - Dario Argento found both public and critical acclaim with his uncredited adaptation of Fredric Brown's novel The Screaming Mimi,which became the first of his "animal trilogy" of Giallos. While Argento would later to go on to acclaim with a series of ultra-stylish, often incoherent horror movies, here he's given a much tighter script with an effective final twist that should keep most viewers guessing. Like many Italian films of the era it suffers from bad dubbing and occasionally odd dialogue choices, but Argento - when paired with Ennio Morricone's astounding sing-song score, overcomes these limitations to deliver a minor classic.