Mifune: The Last Samurai
4 out of 5 stars
Toshiro Mifune is a giant in Japanese and Western cinema whose footprint is large and influential. As an integral part of Akira Kurosawa’s filmography, Mifune helped define the Japanese samurai film (and, by extension of that, the American western) and helped redefine – with RASHOMON – cinematic narrative. Directed by WHITE LIGHT / BLACK RAIN director, Steven Okazaki, and narrated by Keanu Reeves, MIFUNE is an ode to Mifune which can, in many ways, act as a primer in Japanese cinema for those who want to know more. Literally every film mentioned in this documentary is worth seeing. Told using both personal photos of Mifune’s and Toho publicity shots (some of which are beautiful) and talking heads (Scorsese, Spielberg, and a jaw-dropping host of legendary Japanese actors), MIFUNE paints a frank and illuminating portrait of both the man and the artist. For example, I didn’t know he died of Alzheimer’s nor did I know George Lucas initially offered him the role of Obi-wan Kenobi. The film also does a good job of documenting Mifune’s relationship with Kurosawa. In fact, Kurosawa’s son helped get this film made. The film does come to a rather abrupt end, but it’s still an informative and sentimental (in a very good way) viewing experience. Highly recommended… especially for fans.
Mifune: The Last Samurai
Il Nido del Ragno aka The Spider’s Labyrinth
2.5 out of 5 stars
Just when you thought they’d wrung every possible drop out of the giallo / mystery genre, along comes director Gianfranco Giagni with THE SPIDER’S LABYRINTH to show that the old girl still has some kick in her. Story is slow to roll-out ( a professor is sent to Budapest to find a lost researcher and his work – lots of mystery and dark hallways ensue) with the slow burn sorta paying off toward the end with some neat FX work by Sergio Stivaletti (DELLAMORTE DELLAMORE and a bunch of Argento films). The Argento mention is on purpose as this feels very much like mid-career Argento (with less of the visual flair); think between INFERNO and TENEBRE and it could very well, dare I say, be one of the 3 Mothers mythology, thematically-speaking. Acting is stiff, particularly the main actor, Roland Wybenga (SINBAD AND THE SEVEN SEAS) who doesn’t play clueless, but is clueless. His tone is all wrong and he looks far too much like a model to be taken seriously. Luckily, his role here is mostly to look amazed and be Captain Exposition. The rest of the cast is a haze of feathered hair and big shoulder pads (it is, after all, the 80s) and they’re mostly there to move the story along. Overall, the film is odd, clumsy, with lots of driving scenes that go nowhere. Further, this is one of the films where it’s clear EVERYONE is in on ‘it,’ but ‘it’ is never explained until we walk in on the previously mentioned Stivaletti scene… and then, little is said. The mood is well handled and, again… this feels like a 3 Mother’s film. Murders are clumsy (knives) and aren’t particularly gory, but the main killer is cool looking and sort of fun. Huge plus for the stop-motion demon baby and spiders. Worth seeing on YouTube (see below), but mostly as an oddity and time-waster. Fun, but by no means, crucial viewing.
Female Prisoner: Caged! aka Joshu Ori
2.75 out of 5 stars
FEMALE PRISONER: CAGED! is a Nikkatsu “Roman porno” (aka “pinku”) film from 1983 which relies more on its sense of brutality than even attempting a coherent story. Directed by Masaru Konuma (NAGISA, XX: BEAUTIFUL HUNTER) and starring Min Asami, Nami Matsukawa, and a host of Japanese lovelies, CAGED is little more than an excuse for nudity, rape, torture, lesbianism, and brutality. The plot is like many “women in prison” flicks: a vicious warden, some lecherous guards, and female gangs vying for power. Anyone who’s seen these sorts of things knows what they’re getting before they ever hit “Play.” The difference here is that no one does perverted quite like the Japanese (ok, well.. maybe the Germans, but you get the idea). The plot is basically a series of set pieces with an ultra-thin veneer of story (most porn has a more realized narrative structure). So, for what it is… FEMALE PRISONER: CAGED! does what it sets out to do quite well: be provocative, be lurid, and to dance along the line between good taste and bad. Admittedly, these types of films are not for everyone. Those with aversion to the aforementioned cinematic traits should steer clear, but the “Roman porno” genre did well in its day and it serves as an interesting cultural footnote. Rentable… but only if you’re know what you’re getting yourself into.
1 out of 5 stars
Directed by Jake Kennedy (the would be brains behind the brain-dead DAYS OF DARKNESS), this is - plain and simple - misogynistic torture porn… and a terrible example at that. Ham-fisted from beginning to end, it tries WAY to hard to seem sympathetic to the main characters plight, but then it uses that plight to justify the rampant violence inflicted on her… as if that makes it ok. There are a lot of cameos littered throughout (Tony Todd, Michael Rooker, Jason Connery) and that can only mean one of two things… 1) someone owed somebody else money / a favor or 2) the director had incriminating photos. And who did Graham McTavish (RAMBO) fuck over to have to take a lead role in this pile? But who cares, really? The plot is contrived and cliché (for example, the way the documenting camera keeps getting handed around just in time to catch all aspects of the supposed story) and the acting is, with one or two exceptions, pretty much just strippers chewing scenery. But let’s be honest, 9 out of 10 people who rent this bag of gas aren’t doing so for “great cinema.” They’re here for the violence & for the splatter. Sadly, PENANCE offers very little. Oh, sure, a LOT of it is implied and there are one or two moments that are well portrayed, but… the undeniably hateful - and exploitative - philosophy behind the film is just repugnant. But, by far, the most unpalatable thing about PENANCE is how shitty the filmmaking is.
Kevin Smith: Burn In Hell
3 out of 5 stars
Another Q&A from Smith. This time out… we get the touching story of his father’s death, a rousing rant about passion and inspiration, and more. If you’re a fan of Kevin Smith and his Smodcast Network, then you’ll probably have heard these stories before. If not, then you’re in for a treat. Smith is an interesting guy and a natural storyteller, so he’ll at least bring a smile to your face. Worth the rental especially if you're already a fan.
Kevin Smith: Too Fat For 40
3 out of 5 stars
Smith returns with exactly what we’ve come to expect from these Q&A DVDs: humorous stories told in an amusing manner by a sweaty fat guy in a hockey shirt. In this installment, we got one hour long answer to a single question. That’s not to say the disc isn’t enjoyable. In fact, if you enjoyed the other Kevin Smith DVDs or you’re a fan of his, you’ll thoroughly enjoy this. But, at a time when he does like four or five shows on his Smodcast Podcast Network, most of these stories are ones you’ve heard before. Look, I like Smith. I think he’s honest in a day when honesty is not nearly valued highly enough. He’s genuinely funny in a way that seems real. I just think what keeps this disc from being rated any higher is that Smith is just getting spread a little too thin these days. Again, fans of Smith’s will dig this one a lot. Non-fans who are looking to get into his schtick could easily jump onboard here as well.
1 out of 5 stars
Let’s get this out on the table first… I hate “horror comedies.” With the exception of maybe SHAUN OF THE DEAD and a few others, they are never “scary” and they’re rarely funny. With AAAH! ZOMBIES, this holds true in spades as we get a dopey flick made poorly that ends up being a complete waste of what might have been a decent premise (zombies who don’t know that they’re zombies). Low budget and badly scripted, the actors do what they can with the material they’re given, but… it is soon evident that it is just a thankless job. Crap!
3 out of 5 stars
Director Kiyoshi Kurosawa is best known for his J-Horror films such as RETRIBUTION, DOPPELGANGER, PULSE, CURE and the exquisite SÉANCE. With TOKYO SONATA, he ventures into different territory with mixed results. SONATA goes a long way in showing the dynamic of the Japanese family and sheds a bit of light on their day-to-day economic structure. However, about 2/3 of the way through, the narrative drifts off course into ground more darkly comedic (and borderline absurd) only to try to sew things up at the very ending. Performances are mixed with Teruyuki Kagawa giving a terrific performance as the father and Kyoko Koizumi acting in a more subdued (but totally heartbreaking) manner. It is the kids who fall short with the youngest obviously being cast not for his acting chops but rather for his piano playing abilities (beautifully evident at the end). Still… TOKYO SONATA is a major step forward for Kurosawa and shows a HUGE leap forward in his storytelling ability. The pace may be too slow for Western audiences, but Japanese cinema fans will enjoy this. A good film, but not a GREAT film, but still well worth seeing.
Nightmares in Red, White, and Blue
3 out of 5 stars
While this documentary on the American horror film is well-made, star studded, and packed with scenes from your favorite movies, it is also nothing more than a refresher course on horror cinema - especially for anything more than casual viewers of the genre. There is literally no new ground broken here. “Gee, you mean Universal made horror films?” “You say ‘50s “big bug” movies addressed audience’s fear of nuclear war?” “Golly, ‘70s grindhouse pictures were statements on the permissiveness of the decade?” “Wow, ‘80s slasher films were about excess - much like the Reagan era?” Yeah, buddy… no shit! Still, there’s enough of a nostalgia factor at play here that makes the viewing experience sort of fun - even if only to play the “I Saw That!” game with friends and family. Not the greatest treatise on the horror film, but certainly not the worst either.
The Dark Lurking
1 out of 5 stars
According to IMDB, this Australian shit-pile was budgeted at one million dollars, but I’ll be damned if I can see it. Maybe they spent the cash on some of the sets (which look decidedly ALIEN-like) or maybe on the Makeup FX (which look ok in some places, utterly ridiculous in others)? Wherever is was, it certainly wasn’t to pay the acting talent (which is abysmal). As for the plot… imagine ALIEN meets RESIDENT EVIL meets DOOM and you’re not far off the mark. Straight up, kids, this is mess from its predictable beginning to its clichéd conclusion. Rent ANYTHING else.
Yatterman (aka Yattâman)
4 out of 5 stars
A self indulgent rewatch. Leave it to the great Takashi Miike (THE GREAT YOKAI WAR, 13 ASSASSINS, ICHI THE KILLER, AUDITION) to bring an old and much-loved Japanese children’s television show to the screen and do it well. If you imagine a big budget version of MIGHTY MORPHIN POWER RANGERS on acid, you won’t be too far afield. Packed with CG and miniature technology, YATTERMAN is not to be taken seriously, by any means. However, there is a ton of fun to be had here nonetheless. From the slapstick comedy to the oftentimes ridiculous Mechs, YATTERMAN is a hoot for both kids and adults alike. What’s most impressive about the film – much as it was with THE GREAT YOKAI WAR or the ZEBRAMAN films – is Miike’s adaptability and his deft hand with a kind of material one would not think, from his prior filmography, he might not be good with (ie, a kid's flick). I mean, if you look at ICHI THE KILLER and AUDITION then look at his various Yakuza films and then view his recent chanbara output… and then THIS! Miike has proven himself time and time again to be a formidable and wildly inventive filmmaker. As far as the actors go, they know what they signed on for and attack their roles with suitable earnestness. Yes, YATTERMAN can be silly and well… kind of stupid, but there is no denying the breadth of its imagination. It is after all a live action anime. While a few of the jokes may be a little “adult” for the kids (one mech has breasts that fire bullets & missiles), they are not so much so as to be a problem. While the film does run a little long at almost 2 hours, its pace is quick, fun, and creative, so it shouldn’t be a problem. Highly recommended for fans of films that are “different” and for families who want something creative to watch together (don’t worry… the more adult references will slip passed the kids unnoticed).
Law Abiding Citizen
3 out of 5 stars
A "yeah, I was bored" rewatch. I'll be honest, there's 3/4 of a very solid actioner / thriller here. The problem comes when, after establishing himself as a genius in espionage & tactics, Butler makes some very amateurish mistakes which deflate the story to the point of disbelief. The cast is good and some of the kills are brutal (particularly the prison shanking and the judge's demise), but the script takes a moral high ground that contradicts its already established lurid position. Worth seeing, but just don't take things too seriously.
The Elephant In The Living Room
3.5 out of 5 stars
The keeping of exotic animals anywhere around people is illegal in a lot of states. In a lot of states, it’s not. THE ELEPHANT IN THE LIVING ROOM is a documentary about the two sides of that discussion. One… owns a total of 4 lions (a male, a female, and two cubs). He sees them as his pets and he loves them. The other side is The Law. The film focuses on a cop whose job it is to police exotic – and oftentimes highly dangerous – animals that may cause a problem with the human population. The film tries to show both sides of the argument, but… it’s hard to sound rational when you live with a bunch of really dangerous predators. Very much worth renting, but animal lovers should know it can get a little rough now and then.
The Man From Nowhere
5 out of 5 stars
A rewatch of one of my favorite films of all time!!! Director Jeong-beom Lee shakes the dust off of what has recently become a rather dusty genre (the action revenge thriller) and puts a wonderfully subtle spin on the ball. Bin Won (TAE GUK GI, MOTHER) shows such a range of emotion here (from a subdued pawn shop owner to the murderous force of nature that is Tae-Sik Cha) that his performance sears himself into the meat of your brain. While the film does take a bit to gather momentum, when the pay-off comes… it’s edge-of-your-seat thrilling. This film EASILY has some of the best knife-fighting ever captured on film. It’s brisk, bold, and brutal and I defy anyone not to impressed by it. Action fans… Drama fans… Korean cop thriller fans… and will all rejoice in this truly impressive film. I love this one and give it my most ardent recommendation. See this!
WARNING: Below lay spoilers!
3 out of 5 stars
More chaos from Sushi Typhoon as one of their more obscure splatterfests hits my desk. As usual, the guys deliver a film spawned from a ridiculous script and featuring Special FX that as laugh-out-loud funny as they are over-the-top. Director Yadai Yamaguchi (MEATBALL MACHINE, YAKUZA WEAPON) helms what is, in many ways, a reboot of his first film, BATTLEFIELD BASEBALL The film features Tak Sakaguchi (YAKUZA WEAPON, TOKYO GORE POLICE, SAMURAI ZOMBIE, DEATH TRANCE, and a host of others) as Jubei Yakyu (a character of the same name as he was in BATTLEFIELD BASEBALL), a gifted baseball player who, after inadvertently killing his father with a ball, swears to never again play the game. After a lifetime of crime, he is sentenced to a juvenile detention facility (which is run by a Nazi-worshipping female warden) and coerced into returning to the game he so long ago swore off. Trust me, within the context of the film, it makes more sense that it sounds like it does. Sort of. But really, who cares? These films are all about how far over the line they can go, how ridiculous it all is, and the gore. While the level of bloodletting is not as extreme as other Sushi Typhoon films, there is quite a lot of gore in DEADBALL. And yes, it’s all still exceedingly gratuitous. Still, DEADBALL steadfastly refuses to take itself seriously and the resulting film is silly, utterly ridiculous, and yet, somehow vastly entertaining. Perfect for parties or “friends over for beer,” DEADBALL – again like a lot of Sushi Typhoon product – has nothing on its mind other than to be fun. Arthouse film fans need not even bother, but if you think rectal exams which yield spanner wrenches, dolls, and tennis rackets are funny… If the idea of killer robots and deadly Japanese schoolgirls that shoot killer baseballs at light speed amuses you… and if geysers of blood, feces, and guts makes you laugh… Then DEADBALL is perfect for you!
5 out of 5 stars
What could have been a maudlin, depressing film about cancer and the potential for dying instead turns out to be a genuinely funny and poignant film that bravely tap-dances on the line between drama and comedy. Joseph Gordon-Levitt (INCEPTION, BATMAN RISES) does a fantastic job of grounding the film while Seth Rogan (SUPERBAD, 40 YEAR OLD VIRGIN), while restrained considering his other work, manages to be endearingly sympathetic and adds a much needed levity. The film costars Anna Kendrick (UP IN THE AIR), Bryce Dallas Howard (HEREAFTER, THE VILLAGE), the amazing Philip Baker Hall (THE SUM OF ALL FEARS, THE INSIDER), Matt Frewer (DAWN OF THE DEAD, MAX HEADROOM), and Anjelica Huston (ADDAMS FAMILY) all of whom do truly wonderful work. Director Jonathan Levine (THE WACKNESS) achieves a delicate balance here and imbues the film with some absolutely amazing moments. Deftly written and told with a subtle eye toward its own humanity, I liked this film a LOT. HIGHLY recommended, but bring a box of tissues for the tears of joy and sadness.
I Maniaci aka The Maniacs
2 out of 5 stars
This totally silly “sex comedy” from 1964 starring a bunch of Italian actors (including the stunning Barbara Steele) and directed by - of all people - Lucio Fulci is basically a bunch of rather dopey vignettes that, for the most part, come off extremely dated and completely unfunny. There are two things that make the film interesting: 1. Barbara Steele who is as hawt as always and 2. It serves as sort of a “snapshot” of Italian culture in the early 1960s. The sex is ALWAYS implied and comes off pretty immature in retrospect, but again… it nails people’s attitudes at a time just before things like Benny Hill came into being. The women are attractive. The men suitably sex-obsessed and silly. Barbara Steele fans will love it. Lucio Fulci fans will want to see it to get an idea of the kinds of films The Maestro made before he hit his stride with the zombies and bloodshed for which he is best known.
We Are What We Are
3.75 out of 5 stars
A highly original character study of a family who begins to fall apart when the patriarch suddenly dies. Mother is lost and still trying to maintain control. The eldest son is being looked toward to assume the role of leader even though he‘s unsure that he can do a good job. The other son wants the power and thinks he has the skills to do a good job, but is in reality too brash and overly prone to violence. And the sister… well, she just wants things to get back to what they were. The thing is… what makes this story different is that the family members are modern cannibals. For years, the father has led them through to world, procuring food, hiding the bodies, covering their tracks, but now he’s gone and their world is not as easy as it once seemed. As the boys stumble along trying to get the provisions they all need, the mother is crippled by her grief and only when things get dire does she rise up and lend a hand. Acting is solid and subtle. The direction is handled well. The story does move at a slow pace, but it’s never boring (especially once you figure out what their secret is). There are only a few scenes of bloodshed, but when they come, they are visceral and full of impact. Solid stuff as long as you’re ok with “quiet horror films” and you’re not looking for anything too overt.
5 out of 5 stars
Director Sylvain Chomet (TRIPLETS OF BELLEVILLE) creates a beautiful and multi-layered tale of an aging magician who discovers times have changed and his special brand of entertainment is slowly falling out of fashion. He then meets a young girl who truly believes he is able to do magic and the poignant - and sometimes bittersweet - tale takes off from there. Based on a script by the great Jacques Tati (the superb PLAYTIME, MON ONCLE, and MR. HULOT’S HOLIDAY), the tale is a heart-warming and subtle story (much like most of Tati’s filmography) presented in a sumptuous and ravishing animation. Like many Tati films, the main protagonist is virtually silent and his tale is told not by his words, but by his actions and the actions of those around him. It is a subtle, endearing, and misleading (in a VERY good way) manner of storytelling. Chomet is in his wheelhouse here (much like he was with BELLEVILLE), but this film shows a certain progression and growing comfortableness with his art form. But in the end, this is Tati’s tale and I’ll admit to being a sucker for his particular style of writing. PLAYTIME is one of my favorite films of all time and now THE ILLUSIONIST ranks up there as well. Highly recommended!!
The A Team
3 out of 5 stars
While there is a lot to like about this reboot of the classic TV series, there is also a lot to hate. The plot is overblown and, well… kind of dumb, but everyone involved seems to be having a good time, so, I guess that counts for something. The acting is ok… and the film proved a couple of things: 1. There are a lot of respected actors who will do ANYTHING for a paycheck and 2. Bradley Cooper can do action. Other than that… THE A TEAM is big, dumb, and full of needless explosions and gun battles and is, IMO, far inferior to a similar – more recent –film, THE LOSERS. THE LOSERS at least, for all of its perceived rip off of THE A TEAM, had a philosophy and was kind of inventive. This… this is just an attempt to cash in on nostalgia and it does so poorly. Still enjoyable with enough beer, but… it simply doesn’t live up to its promise.
3 out of 5 stars
Clint Eastwood takes a shot at doing a “supernatural thriller.” Thing is… the final product is neither supernatural nor is it particularly thrilling. Solid performances are turned in by all concerned, but, other than the fact that the story deals with death, there are no “other-worldly” elements to be found. Also, I think part of the problem (if that’s the right word) is that the opening tsunami sequence (which is spectacular) sets the bar so high that the story that follows comes off a little lackluster. This is all not to say I didn’t enjoy HEREAFTER - I did - it’s just that the film is admittedly slow and the end is one you’ll no doubt see coming. Solid stuff this… just go in knowing the pace is slower than the first 15 minutes leads you to believe. Again, an enjoyable take on a fascinating subject. I think it just has some slight pacing issues.