10.18.2014

Crying Freeman


1995
Directed by: Christophe Gans
Category: Action

I first became aware of French director Christophe Gans when Brotherhood of the Wolf hit the US market and became an underground cult hit. Only after seeing this did I learn that this wasn't his first film. Apparently his first film was a live action adaptation of the super popular Crying Freeman series. This surprised me for three reasons; 1) That a French filmmaker chose this to be his first feature film. 2) I had no idea there was even a live action adaptation to begin with, and 3) Why the hell hasn't this ever been officially released in the US?

Crying Freeman was just about as awesome as I was hoping it would be. Cristophe Gans is a classy director, and much the way I felt when I first watched Brotherhood of the Wolf, Crying Freeman is a visually brilliant film. Before I sat down to watch this, I read some reviews for it and it was surprising to read that most of them were not very positive. Now, I've never seen the anime, and so I base my experience purely on watching this as a film, rather than an adaptation of something else. I don't know the whole backstory on this character or that particular world, other than that he's an assassin who sheds a tear every time he kills someone.

On a technical level, Crying Freeman boasts some really impressive achievements. Gans is one of the few directors left who direct films the way he does, with a constant fluidity that's both impressive and a breath of fresh air. Think a more stylish version of John Woo. I mention Woo because the many action sequences display a very John Woo vibe, only on a much more streamlined level. The action scenes are quite spectacular, and honestly, are some of the best I've ever seen on film that will rival any big budget Hollywood effort. But Gans isn't interested in just giving us another action film, and tries his hardest to make Crying Freeman bigger than that, and on that front, he also succeeds, because with all it's action, Crying Freeman is also a tale of a mans struggle to do the right thing in a world where his job is to basically kill people, yet after meeting a woman who he should kill, but for some reason decides not to, he sets off a series of events and choices that ultimately seal his fate in a world of honor. So in that aspect, Crying Freeman tries to be somewhat philosophical, displaying some impressive moody atmospheric tones that mostly work, if it wasn't for the often silly voice over narration.

One of the best things about this film is that it never strays too far in either direction. While it tries it's hardest to be a crime drama with some philosophical subtext, it knows very well that we are also here for some action and in both departments, it delivers wholeheartedly. Gans use of slow-mo is exquisite, and every fight sequence, sword fight and gun battle is like a ballet of imagery that never ceases to amaze and dazzle the senses. Sometimes the overuse of slow-mo can be jarring and annoying, but it works effectively well here, so I had no complaints in that department. Going into this I had some rather moderate, yet reserved expectations simply based on some of the negative things I read and also the fact that for whatever reason, it's never been officially released here in the states even though it's a good 20 years old now. I can easily say that Crying Freeman exceeded them ten fold and with it's very first sequence, all my fears were obliterated. I loved everything about this film; the look, the tone, the cast, the violence, the old-school choreography and fight sequences - it all comes together so beautifully. His John Woo inspired epic bullet-riddled, sword-yielding ballet of violence is pretty much flawless and is what makes this film such a standout and remarkable achievement in the action genre.

While the film's look and action sequences are great, the casting is a mixed bag. Mark Dacascos, always a welcome addition to any film, shines in the title role. Much like my feelings for Jeff Speakman, Dacascos deserves to be a bigger star than he is, and it's a shame that his most popular films (Crying Freeman, Drive) are actually hard to come by since they've never gotten full-on releases here in the states. While on the positives, I was happy to see Rae Dawn Chong on the screen again, but sad to see her leave so suddenly. It's almost as if she's just completely wasted in this, and that's a shame because the short time she is on screen, she's pretty great. The same goes for Mako. Much like his role in The Perfect Weapon, his appearance is great, but sadly brief. Then we get into the rest of the cast. Tcheky Karyo, who's most remembered for La Femme Nikita, is fine as a detective investigating the Freeman murders. Except, I can't understand why his voice is clearly dubbed, by Ron Perlman no less! Same goes for the female lead, Julie Condra, who plays the woman of Yo Hinomura's (Crying Freeman) affections. Her dubbed performance and narration is a bit distracting. What I can't figure out is why they chose to dub these two slightly minor characters and not even bother with the main bad guy, who's delivery is cringe-inducingly awful on the level of Tommy Wiseau (The Room).

Despite it's mixed bag of casting, which is mainly positive, Crying Freeman is an awesome and classy piece of action filmmaking. It's rare that I'm impressed as much as I was when first watching this, and that's a testament to director Christophe Gans talents as a visual filmmaker. It's a shame he takes such long gaps between projects. I'm hoping he'll step back into the action genre once again after sticking to horror and fantasy for so long.

Here's a quick bit of advice should you choose to track this sucker down. This film in particular is begging to be seen in widescreen. So if you come across it in cropped full frame, don't even bother, it won't even be worth it as so much of the film is gorgeously shot in a 2.35 : 1 aspect ratio, fully realizing the lush visuals that Gans and cinematographer Thomas Burstyn have come up with.

10.16.2014

The Perfect Weapon


1991
Directed by: Mark DiSalle
Category: Action

There's a reason why this film has always stuck in the back of my head after all these years. I couldn't quite put my finger on it, but after finally revisiting it in what seems like forever, I now realize why. The Perfect Weapon is hands down one of the best, most brutal martial arts action flicks to come out in the last 30 years. A solidly made effort that displays some of the best talent in the business of martial arts movie-making and a prime example of "if it's not broke, why fix it?".

Several thoughts ran through my head as I sat down to enjoy this immensely entertaining martial arts flick. 1) Jeff Speakman should have been a bigger action star, and 2) Why the hell isn't Mark DiSalle directing more action films? These are two very important and valid thoughts and when you watch this, I feel that you'll be with me on that. With my eyes glued to the screen as my testosterone levels roared into high gear with all the badassery on display, I began to realize that I remember more about this than I initially thought, which is a testament to it's power to entertain you, which also kind of blew me away since I hadn't seen this in 23 years. Yet as the stunning transfer on the Olive Films 2012 Blu ray release rolled, it all came flooding back.

On the surface, there's really nothing about this film that will make it any different from any other martial arts film that is trying to make a star out of it's first timer headlining a big budget studio film, hence my "if it ain't broke, why fix it?" comment. Jeff plays a guy who goes to visit an old friend, and who subsequently gets caught up in a Korean mafia feud. When his friend is killed, he sets out to seek revenge, clobbering anyone who gets in his way. There are no huge action sequences, but there are plenty of fights, and they are fucking brutal, expertly filmed by director Mark DiSalle, and utilizing every Asian bad guy you can think of who always popped up in martial arts action films back in the day. In this same period, Van Damme and Steven Seagal were going toe to toe at the box office, and Brian Bosworth was also trying to make a name for himself with Stone Cold the same year. But for some reason, Speakman never soared the way he should have, and I can't understand why. He's an amazing martial artist, with The Perfect Weapon proving he can certainly hold his own on screen against an army of bad guys, and who's surprisingly a good actor to his credit.

There is so much to love about this film, and there are plenty reasons why. I was surprised that Speakman is a natural actor, and a good looking guy. That's not easily done in these types of films, so it surprises me that people like Seagal - a one-note actor - can be 10 times more famous than this guy. I just don't get it. While we are on the subject of actors, I fucking love the character actors spread throughout this thing. Mako, James Hong, Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa, shit, even Professor Toru Tanaka is in this and he's just about as badass as he could have possibly been. The film also boasts some impressive technical achievements like for one, there's no slow-mo. Every fight in this is fast, brutal and hard, utilizing Speakman's specific brand of martial arts, Kenpo. And holy shit is this guy fast and brutal. All the insane amount of hand to hand combats he faces throughout notwithstanding, just watch the scene where he's preparing to go to war at the end of the film where he practices by beating the ever-loving shit out of a couch for practice before he heads out the door. Just.......awesome.

The Perfect Weapon was directed by Mark DiSalle. DiSalle cut his teeth in the business as a sometime producer, having helped getting Van Damme's career off the ground producing Bloodsport, Kickboxer and Death Warrant, before producing two Speakman films until he went silent for 20 years in the film industry. In that same period, he only directed two films; Van Damme's Kickboxer in 1989 and then this in 1991. Can somebody please tell me why this guy isn't making more films? Or why he stopped directing with this Grade A masterpiece of martial arts action? DiSalle's restrained style of directing speaks volumes in the overall aesthetic, letting the action take front and center, but also giving us enough controlled directing that is simple, yet effective in the best possible way. And none of this is more evident than in the many, many fight scenes. Each punch, swing, kick and jump is fast, brutal, hard and loud, and insanely badass. Each fight is effective, choreographed and executed with precise precision. So much so that it almost saddens me to think how great a little film like this can be and how they just don't make them like this anymore. As a director, Mark DiSalle is a solid filmmaker, utilizing what he knows to make the best possible martial arts action film.

I think you'll all agree with me that a digital release of The Perfect Weapon has been long overdue. From what I can remember, it only ever came out on VHS and Laserdisc, and neither available in widescreen. In this day and age where everything is released on DVD, it's still shocking to learn that The Perfect Weapon, for whatever reason, was never granted even a sub-par DVD release all these years. It makes no sense and I can't explain it. But Olive Films were wise to this, and graced us with both a DVD and Blu ray release back in 2012. Sadly, there's no Special Features or anything on the discs, but what we do get is a badass and brutal martial arts/action film that deserves a much bigger reputation than it has, and just as important, it's finally available in widescreen. If I had a complaint, it would be that for a bare bones DVD and Blu ray, The Perfect Weapon is surprisingly pricey, but it's money well spent and totally worth the purchase for the amount of awesome you get in an hour and a half.

There's a scene in here that made me both laugh and appreciate how badass this film is on two separate levels. Jeff heads to a gym intent on getting some answers. But of course, nobody wants to help him. When he comes across a man who he thinks can help, the man brushes him off, telling him he's going to get hurt sticking his nose where it doesn't belong. Jeff pauses for 2 seconds as he sizes the man standing in front of him up before he says "I wonder if I can kick your ass?". Fucking. Brilliant. It was a reminder that there was a time when there were some true badasses in the world of cinema at one time. It all started in the 80's, but for my money, it was the 90's that totally encapsulated what it meant to be a badass in action cinema, and Jeff Speakman's The Perfect Weapon is a perfect example of that.

10.14.2014

The Foreigner


2003
Directed by: Michael Oblowitz
Category: Action

For all its lacking in budget, one thing that stands out almost immediately and sets this entry apart from most of his films is that right from the beginning, this sucker is oozing with style. In fact, you could say it's a little too stylish, because while most of it is pretty great, there are a few scenes here and there that come off as silly, but really, that's a minor complaint because this film does what 99% of his other films doesn't, which is that director Michael Oblowitz put some actual thought and technicality into every shot.

The Foreigner came out just as Seagal's film career dived head on into DTV territory. As you all know, a lot of these are not very good, with some of them just being flat out awful. The Foreigner, for all intents and purposes, shouldn't be as good as it is. A strikingly low-budget affair, with an overweight Steven Seagal not really doing much of anything, including his own stunts, except a lot of grimacing and an occasional gunfight here and there. I think I enjoyed this more than I should have. Nothing special by any stretch of the imagination, The Foreigner just seemed to pull off a few things that so many of his films forget to do, which is to entertain you with interesting characters, and give us some cool shit to look at.

Admittedly, there's not much hand to hand action going on in here. Sure he has a quick tussle or two (mainly utilizing stunt doubles unless it's a closeup), but honestly, there's not much in the fight department. But really, that's not something we come to expect from Seagal anymore, is it? He's always been more of a shoot-'em-up kinda action star, and in that department, The Foreigner only marginally delivers. Lots of gunshots for sure, but mainly quick shoot-'em-from-behind assassinations that doesn't give us any real big action sequences. But that's okay, because despite this, something about The Foreigner just gelled with me really well. The curiously international cast was pretty great, and the visual aesthetic was far and beyond better than I was expecting. There's lots of squib work going on throughout and Seagal is indeed a badass in this, easily making this one of the better Seagal films I've seen from his DTV catalog.

Now that I'm done sicking this films dick, let's get down to the problems I had with it. I think most will agree that Seagal's overuse of stunt doubles in the last 20 years is a little out of hand. Now, I haven't seen every single film he's ever done, but I can tell you that the ones I have seen that went DTV, so much of the action depends on the use of stunt doubles, which would be okay I suppose if they weren't so insanely obvious!! In this film for example, the double is at least a good 50 pounds lighter, and try as they might, they'll never find someone who can match his signature frizzy hair. It just gets a little silly when you're watching an action film where the action star hardly does any of the action himself.

I'm a fan of slow-mo, that's just what was the norm in martial arts flicks back in the 80's and 90's. If you really stop to think about it, it's rarely used anymore in the age of quick-edit movie-making. The Foreigner contains an insane amount of slow-mo, most of it unnecessary. So much in fact that you begin to wonder if it was necessary just so they can meet the minimum running time requirements. For the most part though, the slow-mo is used effectively well, but there is something to be said about having too much of a good thing. Then there are some weird and amateurish editing in some areas that kind of throw you off, especially in the last sequence, where all of the films style and creativity just kind of falls apart. But hey, their minor issues because most importantly, The Foreigner is a lot better than most of his films. The plot may be overly complicated and unnecessarily convoluted, but really all you have to know is it's just a lot of double-crosses and assassinations. Sure you can easily pick the damn thing apart with questions like "How did the story turn into a film about Seagal saving a woman and her daughter?", "Why does everyone only wear black?", "What's up with the ridiculous stunt doubles?", "How can people just murder each other in broad daylight and nobody hears or notices anything?", "Why is there so much slow-mo?", but who really cares?

Issues aside, there is something really cool about this film I need to bring up. One of the beauties of The Foreigner is that it displays some great old fashioned practical stunt work, meaning no wires or CGI, and that's just awesome. But the absolute best thing about this film is one sequence in particular that literally blew me away. In fact, as soon as it was over, I rewound it and watched it again, and then again in slow-mo frame by frame. I'm talking about an explosion sequence that is arguably the best practical effects explosion I've ever seen in any film. It's just fucking nuts and an amazing example of practical stunt work. Trust me, you'll know it when you see it. Everything about it is expertly choreographed and it's execution is just flawless and I still think about the logistics of that sequence and how the hell they pulled it off, and it just continues to blow my mind.

Not a lot of fighting, or shootouts for that matter, and the story may be a little too convoluted for it's own good, but it's stylish, with a lot of cool slow-mo, some great stunt work, and a pace that never slows down long enough to bore you. Plus, it's fun trying to count how many times it's not Seagal doing any of the action scenes by spotting the hilariously unconvincing stunt doubles for even the most minor instances. Not a bad way to spend an hour and a half of your time.

10.12.2014

Old-School Horror: Prom Night


1980
Directed by: Paul Lynch
Category: Horror

This low-budget slasher came out in 1980, the same year Jamie Lee Curtis also starred in John Carpenter's vastly superior The Fog, Roger Spottiswood's Terror Train, and 2 years after Carpenter's genre-defining masterpiece of horror Halloween. I think it's more than safe to say that by this time, Curtis was enjoying a healthy career in the horror genre; a certified Scream Queen if you will. As it does for so many of us, October gives us some extra motivation to check out some horror films, whether new or old. It's just the perfect season for that and so I felt it was finally time to check out this classic in the slasher genre. So how does Prom Night hold up circa 1980?

Prom Night was okay. If you're looking to fill your night with an old school horror film, there are better ways to spend your time. It seems that Prom Night came out in the middle of the original slasher craze, which was spearheaded by John Carpenter himself 2 years earlier. That's all fine and dandy, and as with any new craze, quite expected. But here's the problem; most of them aren't very good, for a number of reasons. 1981's The Burning is a prime example of that. These types of films feel like all they need is to have a mysterious figure running around murdering kids until the final big reveal at the end and that we'll be fine with it. For most people, that's just fine, and it's clearly evident in the cult status films like Prom Night and The Burning have amassed, but that shit don't jive with me.

There were a few things I liked about this, but more things that I didn't. On the plus side, I like the year it was made, and the look and feel of 1980. Such a wonderfully visual time for me, and I've just always loved how fashion, music and design transpired during this time period. I'm a total 80's kid, and in this department, Prom Night boasts some pretty awesome aesthetic. Another plus to the film, which is totally random by the way, is there's a way too long dance sequence during, you guessed it......prom night, that is so insanely ridiculous and fun that you just can't help but love it. Like, had the production spent just as much time on the effects/kills/gore that they did on choreographing this out of left field dance number, then Prom Night could easily have been a decent and passable slasher. Unfortunately, that is where my love the film ends because for me, there were too many things that I didn't like that far outweighed what I did like about Prom Night.

Where to begin? I found it hard to invest fully in this because quite surprisingly, it's really slow and dull. The complete lack of gore, violence and really any blood in general didn't help. One thing I noticed almost immediately was that most of the kills happened off screen, and if there was one captured on camera, it wasn't anything to get excited about. You'd think that when you make a slasher film, the money shots are going to be in the kills, but sadly, that's not the case here. And while most of these issues could have been overlooked had the film at least been a fun film, then that would have been something, but Prom Night's low-budget amateurish quality really relies on some gore content to make up for the lack of pretty much everything else and for that, Prom Night fails. Paul Lynch is a very uninteresting director and his lack of vision really stops Prom Night dead in it's tracks.

I have yet to see the PG-13 remake from 2008, but word on the street has not been good at all. Admittedly, I'm still curious because while it may not be a good film, maybe it could possibly be a train wreck in the best possible way? Maybe one day I'll take that leap of faith and give it a shot, because until then, Prom Night will just leave a sour taste in my mouth.

10.09.2014

Miami Vice


2006
Directed by; Michael Mann
Category: Action/Drama

I don't think anyone expected Michael Mann's movie adaptation of his 80's hit television show to hardly resemble anything about that iconic 80's staple, but how much this film tries to distance itself from that show makes you wonder why they even called it Miami Vice to begin with. I can't remember the last time I was this disappointed watching an action film, or worse yet, watching a film directed by Michael Mann.

I consider myself a huge fan of Michael Mann as a filmmaker. His Manhunter is my favorite Hannibal Lecter film to date, as well as being one of the best, most stylish and coolest detective thrillers ever made. The Keep, when I discovered it recently for the first time, blew me away and remains one of my favorite forgotten gems in the weird/fantasy/horror genre. Heat, an equally engrossing action/thriller that finally combined the star power of both DeNiro and Pacino in a tour de force crime saga is about as intense and perfect as a film could get. But I think that's where my love for his films ends because soon after he did a few drama's like Ali and The Insider, before turning his attention to digital filmmaking and well, I'm just really not a fan of the style he's adopted with Miami Vice.

Now, I'm not going to hate on this movie because it bears no resemblance to the show that it's based off of, because even I know that trying to duplicate the look, feel and vibe of something as retro cool as the 80's version was a pipe dream. No, I'm not that naive. I've got other reasons to hate on this. In this version, the only thing that even remotely comes from the old show is the title, and the names of the two lead characters, nothing else, which begs the question, "why even bother calling it Miami Vice at all when you know it will be judged and compared to the series of which it's based?". Just call it something else.

All the things I feared going in came to pass as I watched this. By the time this film came out, I had pretty much lost any hope that Mann could deliver a solid sleek and stylish thriller the way he used to. Even going back to his roots with Miami Vice didn't excite me, which is why it took me this long to finally check this out. As actors, I like Colin Farrell and Jamie Foxx just fine, finding no real qualms about these two headlining this. In fact, with the exception of one actress (more on that later), the cast is fine. It's just pretty much everything else about this that makes it an over-bloated self-indulgent mess, and nowhere near as entertaining as it should be.

Let's begin. One thing you'll notice almost immediately after the first sequence has set you up for bitter disappointment, is that for all it's bells and whistles, a lot of the camera work feels shockingly amateurish. That's no exaggeration. I struggled with the fact that the one and only Michael Mann, a filmmaker I've respected for so many years, directed this mess himself, finding some small hope that maybe as the film progressed, some of his more trademark style would slowly ease into the film. Nope. With the exception of a well placed camera about once every 45 minutes, the entire film resembled more of an episode of COPS. That's the straight-up truth. I wouldn't call it shaky-cam, but rather just a lot of running around with a camera strapped to their shoulder not knowing where to point the fucking thing. What's frustrating is that even in the day and age of the shaky-cam/Michael Bay style of filmmaking, there's still better ways to do it than what they ultimately pull off here. Hell, Doug Limon utilized this concept exceedingly well in Edge of T......ahem, I mean Live.Die.Repeat., or whatever it's called now. And guess what? The same DoP shot both of these! But here, some of the edits and compositions just feel so.......amateurish. That's the best way I can put it. Yet, if you do some research you come to find out it was shot by Dion Beebe, who's actually turned out some excellent work, most recently with the better-than-you'd-expect Edge of Tomorrow. So what the hell happened here? Who knows?

When Michael Mann made Collateral, he began using digital cameras since the entire film was going to take place at night and he liked the way digital captured night shots. I'll admit, it's a much clearer picture than if he was using film. The only downside is that every once in a while, it almost looks like they're using a home video camera. With Miami Vice, he continues to implore this system and for a film that you expect to take full advantage of Miami's beautiful sun-drenched scenery, shockingly, most of it takes place at night, which makes no sense to me. In fact, a good half of the film doesn't even take place in Miami. In fact, until the final showdown comes into play at the very end, there's hardly any action at all. What Miami Vice does have is a whole lot of talking about stuff you couldn't care less about, personal relationships between Crockett and Tubbs and the women in their lives and a pace that literally runs all over the place to the point of exhaustion. What's worse is that you just don't care about anyone or anything in this. It's all alarmingly dull.

The soundtrack is terrible. I'm not gonna lie. Yes, I half expected the Miami Vice theme, or some iteration of it. Sue me. Instead we get a score that's as bland and uninspiring as could possibly be, and a soundtrack filled with hard rock songs by radio friendly rock bands I've never heard of. And he uses these songs to actually push the intensity of a lot of sequences, making the music front and center. It doesn't work. Some synth would have been nice.

Chinese actress Gong Li's place in this film is a mystery. Her character is a Spanish/Chinese/English speaking business woman in the drug cartel, who ultimately falls in love with Crockett. Her character, on paper, sounds like a breath of fresh air in a film filled with stereotypes. But there's a big problem here. First off, Li's English is not very good, nor convincing, yet her character is strong and stoic, which makes it passable. What the biggest problem here is that there is zero chemistry between her and Farrell. Mann tries his hardest to make us believe that these two are passionately in love, which is where a lot of the trouble, drama and danger comes into play, yet there's just nothing there. Even the romantic scenes come off as forced, especially when it looks like Gong Li has never kissed a guy in her life. She clearly looks like she doesn't know how to do it right, or convincingly.

There's nothing worse than being bored in a film that could easily have been a home-run. Mann is more than capable of delivering a solid piece of American crime drama. It's been his trademark for so many films, yet you'd think he never made one before this. Lots of anger, lots of jealousy, lots of double-crosses, lots of moodiness, lots of dreariness, lots of lives at stake, but no real heart. So much of the creative choices in here still don't make any sense to me. Why is most of it at night? Why is there no action? Why didn't Mann take advantage of the city's sunsets? Where are the bikini clad girls? Why no semblance of a theme, or a coherent pace? Why even call it Miami Vice?

10.08.2014

Bad Movie Night: Santa's Slay


2005
Directed by: David Steiman
Category: Horror

What can you say about a film that begins with the killing of James Caan, Fran Drescher, Chris Kattan and Rebecca Gayheart at a Christmas dinner before the credits even begin? One word pops to mind; awesome. That opening is only the tip of the iceberg for what you have in store with Santa's Slay, a film that by all accounts shouldn't be as good or nearly as entertaining as it ends up being.

Here's the thing, writer/director David Steiman knows exactly what kind of film he's trying to make, and gleefully succeeds when many others have failed. Santa's Slay is a ridiculously bad horror film, but in the best possible way. And it's not by accident, as so many others have become. Steiman has crafted a true low-budget horror film so silly, and so ridiculous that by embracing the "absurd", he can more or less pull off what many others have done by accident. What does that mean exactly? Well, often times when a bad low-budget horror film hits the market, more often than not, it's embraced for it's sheer ineptness by inexperienced filmmakers taking a stab at the genre and more or less thinking they're actually delivering an honest to goodness horror film. Farm House anyone? But Steiman knows what he's doing, and has no false hopes that he's delivering a solid horror film. Nope, he's making a film about an evil Santa who's 1,000 year old curse has been lifted, leaving him with the ability to finally go out and start killing again. Yes, that's the kind of film you're in for and it's oh so much fun.

Santa's Slay will boast a few things that will surprise you right off the bat. For starters, it's casting never stopped impressing me. When a film begins with the immediate slaughter of stars like James Caan, Fran Drescher, Chris Kattan and Rebecca Gayheart, you know it's going to be something that will be better than you were expecting, and it is. Superstar wrestler Goldberg as Santa, while an odd choice, is about as perfect as you could have hoped for in the role; growling, grunting and delivering terrible one-liners and puns in the best possible way. But then they throw in other notables like Robert Culp as a seemingly crazy and conspiracy proned grandpa, esteemed character actor Saul Rubinek in an all too brief role, Dave Thomas as a sleazy money hungry preacher and even Tommy "Tiny" Lister in a strange cameo as a gas station attendant, and you have a recipe for "WTF? entertainment". Shit, Brett Ratner produced the damn thing! How crazy is that?!

Another aspect that will certainly surprise many others is that while writer/director David Steiman has never made another film as he's only been an assistant to Brett Ratner on several of his films, the last being in 2002, surprisingly, Santa's Slay is made rather competently. I mean, the film looks good, which isn't something you can say very often with low-budget horror films. Add to that the solid structure, the enjoyable performances (with the exception of the main teenager) and the better-than-you'd-expect production value, and Santa's Slay is pretty much a home run in terms of sheer Bad Movie Night entertainment value. The film is ridiculous, it knows it's ridiculous, and instead of taking itself too seriously, it just runs with it and it's all the better for it.

If I had any complaints to make, it would be just two. The first would be that for all it's creativeness, and it's willingness to embrace the absurd, Santa's Slay never really goes as far as you would expect it to in the gore department. Sure, there are a ton of killings here, but none of them ever reach the level of anything found in say, the Hatchet films. A few killings are quite clever, and a few others stand out as pretty violent, but for a film that is essentially about a killer Santa running around killing random people throughout the entire film, you definitely expect way more in the practical effects and gore department. My second issue would be that the ending also never quite lives up to the buildup. When the final showdown occurs, you're surprised that it's all over so abruptly. You sort of take it as a final step to a bigger finale, but then that finale never comes and you're left wondering "Is that it?".

Overall, despite it's lacking finale and gore content, Santa's Slay offers so much in the way of flat out entertainment that it's hard to let this two issues ruin the experience, because when it's all said and done, this film gets right what so many others get wrong. I'd always seen this, even recently, at my local video store for years as I browsed the horror section, but never thought to actually pick it up. That is until I had read about it somewhere in a list of underrated horror films. Sometimes all I need is one positive word to get me to invest in a film, and thankfully, with this film in particular, it paid off.

10.06.2014

Electric Boogaloo: The Wild Untold Story of Cannon Films trailer is finally up!!

This documentary right here. This is the reason why I love movies so much. Enjoy!


I don't know about you, but I've been excited as hell ever since this project was announced, and by the looks of it, it was worth the wait. Documentary filmmaker Mark Hatley, who gave us 2 equally entertaining docs about the film industry with Machete Maidens Unleashed and Not Quite Hollywood, as well as directing his first feature with splendid results with the Patrick remake, again seems to deliver another outstanding documentary, this one on the famed Cannon Films studio, a staple of my viewing experience growing up in the 80's. Are you excited?!

Impostor


2001
Directed by: Gary Fleder
Category: Science Fiction/Thriller

One of the things I love about watching films is going back and seeking out older ones that I've always known about, yet have never taken the time to actually check out. More often than not, it's these films that blow me away more so than big budget trite from that period. These past few years I've had the pleasure of discovering true gems such as Nighthawks, Internal Affairs, Exorcist III, Sorcerer, 2010, The First Power, and many others for the first time; films that seem to fly under the radar of most moviegoers that will undoubtedly leave a strong and lasting impression. Impostor is not one of those films.

Based on a short story by sci-fi god Philip K. Dick (Blade Runner, Total Recall, Minority Report) and directed by Gary Fleder, a guy mainly known for thrillers and a lot of television work, Impostor stars Gary Sinise in one of his only starring roles as a man who's accused of being an android bomb created by an enemy alien race and who sets out to prove his innocence after escaping a deadly fate. 

Impostor is a completely missed opportunity, which is a pity since it's got great production value, some better than you'd expected special effects, a cast that can knock it out of the park in their sleep, and a decent enough storyline to keep you invested. So where's the problem? For my money, it's director/producer Gary Fleder, and one things shockingly apparent, science fiction is not his forte. What could easily have been a solid sci-fi thriller ends up being a Made-for-TV looking mess that bores you with it's bland and uninspired visual aesthetic. I have no doubt that Fleder can deliver a solid thriller, hell, he's made a career out of it, but set in the confines of a science fiction film, his talent (or ability rather), falls flat on it's ass.

Here's the thing. Had someone else been behind the camera, someone like saaaaaay Peter Hyams for example, this easily could have been a slamdunk in the science fiction thriller genre. Nothing that would have ended up being a blockbuster or anything, but a genuinely entertaining piece of sci-fi pulp. But that's not what we get. Instead, we get a film that's got some outstanding attributes for sure, but ultimately fails to stimulate one of the most important senses in a film for a moviegoer (the visuals), that it ends up being a bland and mediocre bore. I was so bored and uninterested throughout the entire film that I couldn't even bring myself to finish it, with only 30 minutes left to go. I just had no desire to waste 30 minutes of my life in something I had no interest in, especially when there are far better things to spend my time watching. I'm sure that comes off as somewhat silly to some, but being visually stimulated in a film is a big deal to me. A film can be boring, slow and virtually uninteresting, but if it at least looks good, I'll be invested. A good example of that would be my recent experience watching Alien Nation for the first time; a film that seemed generally lacking in almost every department, never quite going the lengths that it should or could have to give us the experience that you would expect from a film like that...........but boy did it look good. And again, as silly as that sounds, sometimes that's enough for me to enjoy a film.

What makes this more than frustrating is that while it's set in the future, it also plays out rather effectively as a straight-up man-on-the-run thriller, yet because of director Fleder's tepid direction, it comes off as dull. But what throws you off is how the film begins, with a short narration explaining what's been going on on planet Earth since we were invaded by a race of aliens. Some killer effects work and equally satisfying set design give you a false hope that we're in for something awesome.

Being as I didn't actually finish the film, I should probably just end things here. The cast is fine, the effects work and set design are top notch, and the story, on it's own, is satisfying enough. It just needed a better director, plain and simple. Gary Fleder, while comfortable in the thriller genre and most importantly, the television format, has no business directing a science fiction film.

10.04.2014

Bloodsport


1988
Directed by: Newt Arnold
Category: Action

It's almost shocking to learn that as big a Van Damme fan as I am, I've actually never seen Bloodsport, his first solo starring role, until now. I don't know, something about it never appealed to me and so I never really made much of an effort to check it out. Pity too, since it's actually rather enjoyable in a cheesy low-budget kinda way.

Most would consider this their first foray into Van Damme's filmography. However, for me it's No Retreat, No Surrender, one of the first VHS tapes I ever made a copy of. My first Van Damme "starring" film experience would be Cyborg, which came out the year after Bloodsport. Though if you want to get technical about it, it's Bloodsport that became Van Damme's first headliner.

Bloodsport, along with others during the heyday of the competition films like Kickboxer, Don "The Dragon" Wilson's Bloodfist series and Lionheart, are the perfect example of the kind of martial arts film they don't make anymore. You know, the martial arts competition film. I guess you can say Keanu Reeves tried recently with his directorial debut Man of Tai Chi, but sadly that felt a little flat and uninspired to me. So it was refreshing to see a film from this often forgotten sub-genre that felt new. Well, it was new to me since I'd never actually seen it before. But more than that, it was a reminder, or kick in the ass rather, that I should seek out some of these long forgotten gems.

Bloodsport, based on a true story, stars Jean-Claude Van Damme as Frank Dux, a guy who abandons the army to go fight in the Kumite, the ultimate martial arts tournament in Hong Kong. There he buddies up with an American fighter named Ray Jackson (Donald Gibb-Ogre from Revenge of the Nerds), and an American female reporter eager to get the scoop. Hot on his trail though are two army officers (one of them being a young Forest Whitaker) hell bent on bringing him back home before he gets a chance to reach the top and fight the reigning defending champion Chong Li (Bolo Yeung), who has no problem killing his opponents during competition. 

One of the things I remember when I first discovered Van Damme in Cyborg was that he wasn't a very good actor. Hell, he's not even a decent actor. I know that sounds harsh, but at least in Cyborg, it's partly true, which may explain why he hardly says a word in the entire film. While some of his delivery in Bloodsport is not very good, it's not necessarily terrible either. Compared to Cyborg though, he's got a lot of dialogue to get through and I have to give him credit for mostly pulling it off. But the fight sequences are the reason we're even watching this film to begin with, and in that department, Bloodsport delivers the goods in a classic old-school way. What does that mean exactly? Well, lots of slow-mo, lots of carefully choreographed kicks, lots of slow-mo screaming, no wires, and lots of stable camera shots. Basically all the shit you don't see in martial arts films anymore. Why you ask? So that you can't tell that the actor is not the one doing most of the fighting himself in modern fight films. Quick-edit/shaky-cam nonsense easily being the number one thing to mask that in films these days. The nerve!

I've said it before and I'll say it again; Van Damme makes a great villain. I only mention that because while he's never been a great actor, JCVD not withstanding, he's able to carry a film well enough with his good looks and charm and simply because of his kickboxing abilities, sometimes that's good enough. He's certainly gotten better and more comfortable with each successive film, with the Golden Age of the Van Damme filmography (1989-1995) being his best output. But when he's playing the villain, it's almost as if a light switch has been flipped, and for some odd reason, he's a much better actor when he's playing the bad guy. Enemies Closer, Expendables 2 and even No Retreat, No Surrender are prime examples of that, with his role as the Expendables main villain easily being the best part of that lame film.

I feel like I should give the guy some credit though, because despite his troubled past, some props are richly deserved. Jean-Claude is one hard worker; the guy never rests. Even back when his fame waned and he was in the middle of a drug addiction (clearly evident in films like Maximum Risk) and we kind of forgot about him, he worked consistently, sometimes even knocking out several films in a single year. And he doesn't give up. JCVD is considered the Van Damme resurgence, yet he never really went away. He's never stopped working, even turning out another DTV action flick the same year JCVD came out called The Shepard. I think we just kind of forgot about him, and JCVD was just the thing we needed for several reasons; 1) To remind us that he was in fact still around, and 2) To show us that Van Damme has indeed gotten better acting-wise in his old age. Sure, he won't churn out anymore full-on martial arts films, which is a shame - instead focusing on direct action - but the guy is good, consistent and most important, passionate about what he does.

It's easy to tell Van Damme is new to the game in this. While he doesn't blow anybody away with his acting chops, thankfully he's got a good, and rather large supporting cast to help things move along nicely. And the seemingly endless barrage of fight scenes are staged and executed well enough that while there's nothing about this film that feels new or fresh, it's easily enjoyable as an old school martial arts film. I enjoyed the hell out of it because it's a simple film, with a simple premise, and a likable lead that can do some amazing shit with his legs.