7.20.2016

Ricochet Film Review, and Director Russell Mulcahy's Roller Coaster Ride in Hollywood

I've always been a big fan of Russell Mulcahy as a director. While most filmmakers are hit or miss in their careers, I can't think of anyone else who deserves the "hit or miss" title more than this guy. For someone who exploded onto the scene in the early 80's and who has turned out some certifiable genre classics in his time, he has also, regrettably, given us a large number of forgettable, and just plain terrible films.  Let me put some of his career in perspective really quick. Starting out as a music video director, he blasted onto the scene with the Australian horror/thriller Razorback in 1984. 2 years later he would deliver another cult classic, Highlander in 1986. Though Highlander became an instant classic, he would not direct another film for 5 years, and that would be for his sequel to Highlander, Highlander II: The Quickening. But wait! Not only did he deliver another classic in my humble opinion with his sequel, but he also gave us this severely underrated detective/thriller classic Ricochet the same year. That's right, Mulcahy delivered a one-two punch in 1991 with Highlander II and Ricochet. Sadly, the remainder of his career could never reach this level of awesome, as anyone who knows his work can attest that his "quality" of work has been on a steady incline ever since.

Nick Styles (Denzel Washington) is an up and coming beat cop who ends up taking down criminal mastermind Earl Talbot Blake (John Lithgow), thus skyrocketing his career. Years later, he's now a famous attorney with a family and life couldn't be better. That is until Blake escapes from prison, hell bent on revenge and terrorizing Styles.

There are so many things that work so well here, that it's hard to break down specifically why Ricochet is so badass. The film as a whole, never skips a beat. There's never a dull moment, or long stretched out sequences that could have been cut shorter. Nope, not here. The pace moves along swiftly, with enough things going on at any given moment that keep you invested. Of course, the best scenes are any with John Lithgow, who excels at playing a bad guy. While I've seen him play the villain quite often, I don't think I've ever seen him as ruthless as he is here. How badass is he? Let's just say he has a sword fight with Jesse "The Body" Ventura and kicks his ass. But the entire casting is pretty great, and it's kind of bizarre seeing such a young and buff Denzel playing a cop out to clear his name, when you consider today he's such a respected actor in the film world, but not one who shy's away from a good action film like The Equilizer, or even the soon to be released Magnificent Seven remake. The guy knows a good film when he see's one.

On the surface, there's nothing about Ricochet that stands out from the countless other cop thrillers of the 80's and 90's, of which there were many. But it's the insanely talented production that kicks this many levels up above cookie-cutter. One of the first things you'll notice immediately is the killer score by Alan Silvestri. Immediately, you'll notice a very strong Predator vibe, and it only does wonders for a film that normally wouldn't warrant such a big and thunderous score. It's awesome. While Silvestri's score over the opening credits already have you in a trance, you'll start seeing names pop up that, if you're at all a fan of action, will kind of blow you away. The "story" is by none other than Fred Dekker (Night of the Creeps, Monster Squad), with the "screenplay" by 80's and 90's action legend Steven E. de Souza (Die Hard, 48 Hrs., Commando, Die Hard 2, The Running Man, Judge Dredd). It's produced by mega producer and action genre legend Joel Silver (Action Jackson, Predator, Commando, Lethal Weapon, Die Hard). Right there, it's just about an action fans dream. But add to that Russell Mulcahy's rather impressive visual eye candy, right at the peak of his creative talents, and everything just comes together so much more impressive than you would ever expect from a film like this.



I'll admit that it's been far too long since the last time I revisited this. I've always loved it, and have always considered it one of Mulcahy's best films, but it often gets lost in the flood of films I try to consume on a yearly basis. That is until I revisited Highlander II recently, reigniting my interest for some of Mulcahy's better films. Truthfully, you can count his best films out of his entire career on a single hand. Much like Renny Harlin, the best stuff was early in his career. It's hard to pinpoint why it happens, but there's always a "shift" in quality, a moment in their career where it all changes so drastically and it never recovers. It's happened to a lot of my favorites; Renny Harlin, John McTiernan, Albert Pyun, Stuart Gordon, and Mulcahy most certainly falls into that category. It's sad and frustrating.

Following this film Mulcahy gave us a forgettable heist film with Kim Basinger and Val Kilmer called The Real McCoy, and then The Shadow, a film that should have reignited his career and shot it into the big budget stratosphere with the big league boys, but as you know, that's not what happened. The Shadow, while not all that great of a film, didn't manage to muster up much interest and did poorly. Visually, The Shadow is pretty to look at, I'll give it that, but it just seems to be lacking substance, or anything to keep you really interested. It constantly feels like it's missing something, never going as far as you feel it should. After that he's pretty much stuck to television and direct-to-video work, with the occasional big budget film from time to time.

Ricochet isn't mentioned nearly enough as being an essential piece of Badass Cinema. Which is rather surprising when you take into consideration that every single person that I ask about this film loves it to death. So why is not considered more of a classic? I can't explain it myself. It's damn near a perfect cop action/thriller and just a great film all around. As of 2016, it's been 25 years since it's release and to date, we've only gotten a very bare bones and sub-par DVD release, where I believe the transfer was taken from a Laserdisc. It's grainy, old, and not in true widescreen, but rather a Letterbox crop. It's such a shame because the film itself looks incredible. It really begs a new cleaned up transfer and upgrade to Blu ray. Until then, you can get the DVD insanely cheap, and for now, that's the best we're going to get.

7.14.2016

The Invitation Film Review: Get Ready to Scream at Your TV


2015
Directed by:
Category: Thriller

I went into this one knowing absolutely nothing about it, other than my wife telling me that it was getting some praise in one of her Facebook horror groups. So that's really all I knew, and the fact that it was on Netflix made it an easy choice for a Sunday afternoon.

A man is invited to a dinner party by his ex-wife and group of friends, who he has not seen in 2 years. Hesitantly he accepts, accompanied by his girlfriend, only to discover that all is not what it seems. 

WARNING: Minor Spoilers Ahead:
I should start off by saying that for the most part, The Invitation, on a technical level, is made really well. I found the camera work and shot compositions to be done competently and artistically. The acting from the large ensemble cast was also really well done. While the majority of the cast was made up of faces and names I'd never seen before, there were a few in there that you will recognize. And that's pretty much all the positive praise I can give it because ultimately, I found this to be a dull, tedious, boring, and frustrating experience. 

For starters, the film is just too damn slow for it's own good. Literally nothing happens for such a huge chunk of the running time that I found myself constantly checking the clock to kind of gauge how much time was left in the film. And while the film was shot nicely, it was also incomprehensibly dark and poorly lit for the most part. Why is everything so dark? Why are there never any lights on? In virtually every single shot, there might be a lamp on in the corner, and that's it. It may have been to give off a specific mood, but it also made it painfully hard to tell what was going on most of the time. 

But that's really chump change compared to how infuriating you'll be watching things play out. If you are someone who values logic and common sense, then this could be one of the most painfully annoying experiences you'll ever have watching a movie. You'll constantly be screaming at the television because the choices made by so many people defy any real sense of logic. It's maddening!

"How or why did they let it get this far?!"
"Why doesn't anybody else sense the danger?!"
And most importantly, "Why didn't he just fucking leave?!"

When things finally become revealed in the last act, the pace is picked up considerably. While that was a nice change structurally, a lot of what happens in that final act only beg more questions with no answers, leaving you even more confused, frustrated and annoyed. I might be in the minority with this one though. Looking online and in some other groups, I can see that it get's a healthy dose of praise, especially in the festival circuit where, apparently, it created a lot of buzz. But honestly, it's a tiring experience, and while the performances were good, the film thinks that it's too smart, and the viewer is dumb enough to eat anything they dish at us. 

7.08.2016

One Man Force Film Review


1989
Directed by: Dale Trevillion
Category: Action

Much like myself, I'm sure you came across this VHS back in '89 at your local video store, maybe even when it was moved to the "Action" section later on during it's shelf life. I know I did. Like me, you probably passed on it numerous times, for no real reason in particular. Recently though, as I feed my "low-budget action" addiction, I was somehow reminded of this title, and when I did some digging, I found out that outside of VHS and Laserdisc, a very low-grade poor quality DVD release in full frame was all that was available. Thankfully for me, a brilliant and generous person uploaded the entire film to YouTube.

I can't believe I hadn't seen this film until now. I was vaguely aware that John Matuszak was a former football star, but I don't think I was aware though at the time that he was also Sloth in The Goonies. But I've always been a fan of action, even more precisely, low-budget action, so the fact that I never gave this a shot until now still baffles me.

One Man Force is awesome. Let me just make that clear first. OMF is just the kind of low-budget balls-to-the-wall action flick I live for. I hoped it would be good, but I didn't expect it to be this good. In terms of entertainment value, OMF delivers the goods tenfold. Why? Because intentional or not, this renegade cop flick is so over-the-top, and so cliche, that you'd swear it was a parody, only it's not. It's all played straight and for that, this film kicks ass.

In terms of plot, just think of the most typical and contrived plot you can think of in an action film, and it's probably this. Cop with a bad attitude goes out for revenge after his partner is killed in the line of duty. Constantly butting heads with his captain, he goes rogue, trying to find the people responsible, only his investigation leads to dangerous territory. Same old story you've seen countless times. Except, in this case, it's so......"in your face" that it's almost comical.

There is nothing more satisfying for me than to come across an unexpected action gem like this and to be totally surprised. If there's one thing OMF has going for it, it's that it delivers on the "rogue cop" stereotype and runs with it head on. It's like writer/director Dale Trevillion watched every 80's cop film he could find, copied every single cliche, every single archetype of this very specific genre, and dialed it up to 11:
Angry cop with a bad attitude: Check.
Cop butts heads with his boss: Check.
Cops partner gets killed so he goes out for revenge: Check.
Cop uncovers a larger more sinister conspiracy at play: Check.
Cop is virtually indestructible: Check.
It's all here and it's fucking fantastic.

John Mutaszak is such a badass in this. How badass is he? The dude physically lifts regrigerators and coke machines and throws them agains bad guys. That's how badass. His performance in this is so "on point" that it's almost a caricature of the one-man-army rogue cop. It's hilarious! He alone makes this film as great as it is and had he lived, he could easily have been one of THE premier action heroes. I was so sad to learn that here he finally was given his own starring role, after having numerous supporting roles and bit parts, in his very own action film, only to pass away unexpectedly that very same year at the young age of 38. The guy never even had a chance to enjoy any real kind of mainstream success. I don't know if that was necessarily in the cards or not after this film, but just from this film alone it's painfully
apparent that this guy had a presence. A huge presence. He was a natural, more so than most guys who do end up having some form of success in this field. For someone who was only 38 years old, he comes off much more mature than that. And with a 6'8 height and muscular frame, the guy is a hulk, and fiercely intimidating. When he's angry, it's scary. When he's gentle, he's like a big teddy bear. I'll bet the guy could easily have gone on to bigger and better films later on down the road, even outside of the action genre. If this film is any indication, the guy had enormous potential. It's a shame his demons had a tight hold on him, as his death was attributed to an accidental overdose. He was always candid about his battle with addiction throughout his life. I guess he just couldn't beat it after all.

Despite it being cheesy as hell and so entertainingly over the top, OMF also sports a killer and better than I expected supporting cast of notables like Sam Jones (Flash Gordon), Charles Napier (Rambo II), Richard Lynch (Invasion USA), Ronny Cox (Robocop, Total Recall), and a few others whose faces look awfully familiar. It's always fun to watch something like this, and to see all these familiar faces. It makes the experience all the more enjoyable and comfortable.

I honestly can't praise this film enough, if you're into this particular genre. It's got it all, and continuously pushes the envelope throughout. It's no Oscar winner, but in the realm of Badass Cinema, this is damn near close to a work of art.

7.07.2016

Leviathan Blu ray Review

George P. Cosmatos' underwater sci-fi/action/thriller finally got the blu ray treatment back in 2014 courtesy of Shout! Factory. As you know, while they do a great job finding hidden gems and cult classics that never saw a release beyond VHS or Laserdisc, they also release a lot of mainstream stuff, which is great too of course. But if you follow these releases, and the reviews that soon follow, then you are aware that the quality of some of their releases, even the higher profile ones like Escape From New York for example, vary greatly from one release to the next. But one thing you can always count on are great Special Features in nearly every release.

It took me a few years, but I finally caved and bought this release, even though I'd been wanting it since it's release. I don't know why I just didn't buy it immediately. So here we are and here are my thoughts on the blu ray release of this cult classic.

The transfer to blu ray is flawless. I didn't notice a single grain or speck anywhere in the film. The blacks are a dark solid black, and the film in general, which carries a light blue tint throughout, is stunning to put it frankly. Every frame pops with vibrancy, and it's as clear and gorgeous as it's ever looked. Simply, it's never looked better.

One of the highlights of this release, besides the stunning transfer, is the excellent doc found on the Special Features revolving around the makeup and special effects for the film. Legendary effects artists Alec Gillis and Tom Woodruff Jr, under the supervision of Stan Winston at the time, go in depth, along with other's, on the making of the film, working with passionate director George P. Cosmatos, the idea's behind the final monster makeup, as well as the film's initial luke-warm reception and cult status. It also goes deep into their working relationship with Stan Winston, and Winston's tumultuous relationship working with Cosmatos. It's really a great doc and well worth the purchase of this release alone.

I've always loved this film. Sure it's essentially just a mixing pot of The Thing, Alien and a slew of other bigger better films before, but it's just so much damn fun. There's no denying that. Whenever I introduce this to people, I just tell them it's basically a big budget B-Movie. It's got an incredibly talented ensemble cast, led by Peter Weller, and shows once again George P. Cosmatos' (Cobra, Tombstone, Rambo: First Blood Part 2) ability to be an even-handed director with just the right amount of flash. For a film that takes place primarily in an underwater station, Cosmatos gives it a slick and stylish aesthetic. The nice build-up of tension, the killer cast, the great practical effects work, and the films visual eye candy make this a treat.

Anyway, I hope this helps anyone out there who's on the fence about buying this. When it comes to blu ray's, I always do my fair share of research before a purchase because most studio's tend to just repackage and re-release previous titles, or new companies don't take the time to actually "fix" the print when converting it to HD. I'm happy to report that in the case of Leviathan, it's simply stunning and one of my best blu ray purchases.

7.05.2016

Quick Shot Review: The Funhouse Massacre


2016
Category: Horror/Comedy

It's always a treat to discover little gems like this. I hadn't heard anything about it beforehand, never even knew it existed until I came across it while browsing a Redbox machine. But still, I passed on it because I didn't know enough about it to warrant taking a chance. Then the other day an instagram friend posted how she really enjoyed it, so that piqued my interest. I proceeded to ask a few questions and when she used the term "cheesy gory fun", I was sold. I hit my local Redbox that very night and hoped for the best.

A group of mental patients/killers escape and take over a funhouse/haunted house on Halloween. 

The Funhouse Massacre hit all the right notes for me. It's cheesy, it's gory, it's fun, it's funny, and it's surprisingly well made and competent. It's not serious, or even scary for that matter, but it's not trying to be. It's simple story/premise let's you know right away, and while there have been countless horror movies centered around a haunted house/funhouse theme, I can't remember one that was as entertaining as this one.

One of the highlights for this, for me anyway, was the better than you expect ensemble cast. It's a large cast, with each of them being a good enough actor to not come off as annoying, something that seems to be the norm these days with young actors in horror films. On top of that, they pepper the film with a healthy dose of horror cult icons like Robert Englund, Clint Howard and Courtney Gains to name a few. But really, the entire cast is pretty solid, where it really could have gone the other way and easily ruined the experience.

I've read a number of online reviews where people were just flat-out hating on this, and for the life of me, I can't understand why. It's a fun horror film, simple as that. It's not trying to prove anything and it's not trying to reinvent the wheel. It's a slasher that takes place in a funhouse with fun over the top gore and shot competently for the most part. Really, what more could you ask for in a low-budget horror film?

7.01.2016

Looking Back on Renny Harlin's Die Hard 2: Die Harder, Released 26 Years Ago This Week


It's really hard to love the entire Die Hard franchise. Let's be honest. After 3, they've all just gone downhill in terms of quality and entertainment, with the character of John McClane turning more into an un-killable superhero rather than an average man thrust into chaos. There are countless reasons why the last 2 films are just terrible, with Part 3 just barely skirting that edge, but retaining enough of the original 2 film's luster to keep it in check. Even then, it doesn't always look and feel like a Die Hard flick, and for that, I rarely ever revisit it.

But Die Hard 2: Die Harder is different. Released only 2 years after the original blew us all away and redefined the action genre, while also creating a whole new sub-genre, Die Hard 2 was pretty much what was expected of sequels back then, giving us a lot of the same, while throwing in a little bit of new. Director Renny Harlin, hot off the success of A Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Master, was in the middle of directing the Andrew Dice Clay vehicle The Adventures of Ford Fairlane when producer Joel Silver was so impressed with the daily's he was getting back that while the film was still shooting, he immediately hired him to direct the next Die Hard film. Working on both films simultaneously didn't faze Harlin as he was young, thirsty and hungry for work. Harlin could do no wrong. Once upon a time he was one of the hottest directors on the planet, and the most successful Finnish film director to date. Sadly, it would only take a film a few years down the road to see this rising star crash and burn hard. That film was 1995's Cutthroat Island, one of the biggest flops in history, and his career has never fully recovered.



Of all the Die Hard films, I find myself revisiting this one the most. Sure the first one is a game-changer, and one of the most thrilling, well-made, inventive, and badass action films ever made. Not just from the 80's, but "any" decade. Watching it nearly 30 years later and the film still holds up better than most current action films made today. The same can be said for Die Hard 2. Sure it's a lot of the same old thing; John McClane must once again tackle a group of terrorists on Christmas Day, only this time he's in Washington, DC, stuck at Dulles International Airport. And trust me, they're completely aware of the absurdity of this. There's even a now famous line that was the spotlight of the teaser trailer, "How can the same thing happen to the same guy twice?!", though a completely different take was used for this in the final film. But you know what? That's fine. I liked the familiarity. I like when Bruce Willis looks and acts like John McClane, something that would start to change starting with Part 3, before Parts 4 and 5 totally overhaul the character into someone almost unrecognizable. But for me, this film takes a lot of the same elements that made the first one so great and dials it up a few ridiculous notches, resulting in a sleeker, cooler, and more fun film experience in general.

A lot of what happens in this is highly ridiculous, totally unplausable, and from time to time, nuts.
But that's what makes this so great! It's the perfect example of "why fix it if it ain't broke" kind of action cinema. Harlin and returning screenwriter Steven E. de Souza up the ante numerous times, and the death toll, with one sequence where an entire plane full of people goes down. Hell, even Michael Kamen's iconic score seems more prominent and boisterous this time around. And that's what I love about this. Everything is bigger, louder and better.

While Renny Harlin deserves a lot of the praise for how great this film looks aesthetically, he can't take all the credit. Here he re-teams with his Ford Farlaine cinematographer Oliver Wood (Face/Off) and the result is a sleeker, very "90's" looking action film. I wish Harlin stuck with this style. He began drastically changing the "look" of his films starting with Cliffhanger, and he's never looked back, which is a shame because of all the films he's made, I have to admit that Die Hard 2 and The Adventures of Ford Fairlane are his best looking films to date.

One of the things I love seeing every time I revisit this one are all the familiar faces, especially in the group of terrorists. I think this is where John Leguizamo and Robert Patrick might have even gotten their start. Nearly every one of them have moved onto bigger things, and it's kind of surreal to see them play terrorists with little screen time and for the most part, not a single line of dialogue. But this is Bruce's show and once again, he shines as John McClane. I've always loved Willis, but his output, especially around this time, was erratic to say the least. Moving from genre to genre, sometimes even making 4 films a year, all with varying degrees of success, it's nice to see him at his most animated, snarky, and smartass best. That began to change with Part 3, where he became a more serious and beat-down McClane. And I don't even recognize McClane in Part 4: Live Free and Die Hard. That's the moment the franchise completely lost me.

Die Hard 2 doesn't get the love and credit it deserves. It's a much better film than history gives it credit for, and one of the best sequels ever in the ever-popular short list of good sequels, because you know, most of them suck. Die Hard 2 is slick, never once slowing down long enough for you to gaze over at the clock, throwing blood, mayhem and violence at you at a breakneck pace. The visual artistry alone is worth the watch. This was made at a time when models, miniatures, squibs, matte paintings and green screen were still utilized to their full extent. And again, it all looks better and more realistic than 99.9% of the CGI garbage we still continue to get, even in 2016.

If it's been a while, I implore you, please revisit this classic. It's so much fun, so absurd, and one of the most stylish looking action films ever made. Everyone involved brought their A-Game to the table here, and while the rest of the franchise did a steady decline in quality and entertainment immediately following this entry, at least we'll always have the first 2 films as a reminder of the promising start to one of the best action franchises ever made.

6.30.2016

Shane Black's The Nice Guys Film Review


2016
Directed by: Shane Black
Category: Action/Comedy

When I learned Shane Black was going to go back to his roots with an old-school style action/buddy comedy, I was more excited than most. Black virtually invented the action/buddy genre with films like Lethal Weapon, The Last Boy Scout and The Long Kiss Goodnight. While he was merely a writer for those films, he would get his first directing gig with 2005 Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, which he both wrote and directed himself, proving his talents carried over into directing, which he continues to do sporadically. So when it was announced he'd be doing an action/buddy comedy set in the 70's and he would be directing and writing himself, well if you grew up on these movies in the 80's, then you knew this was a genre that really hasn't had success in a very long time. Nobody makes them the way they used to anymore.

The weekend this film opened, my partner in crime and I got our tickets and saw it on a Saturday night. Now you should know I never pay full price for a late feature, because it's just too fucking expensive. I refuse to pay outrageous prices. But I knew that this film probably wouldn't be a big hit, so I wanted to support it as much as possible. Of course, the theater was only maybe a quarter full, which was sad. But let me tell you. The next 2 hours proceeded to be 2 of the most entertaining hours I've spent in a theater in quite some time. The Nice Guys was awesome. Just the type of film we always hope they can make again; one that we've been missing for a good 20 years.

What makes this film a cut above the rest is that it's genuinely funny, and doesn't rely on "stupid" to make you laugh. It's hilarious for all the right reasons at just the right moments. It's also a detective story, sprinkled with some solid action throughout. So you kind of have a bit of everything for your enjoyment. What makes it even more "authentic" is that it's set in the 70's, giving it that extra air of authenticity and legitimacy. Sure they could have set it present day, but it's just more fun to see the disco era recreated so well.

While I never would have pictured Russell Crowe (looking the heaviest I've ever seen him) and Ryan Gosling as an action/comedy duo, I have to admit their chemistry is undeniable. Plus, who would have thought that Gosling could actually be funny? I didn't! I don't think I've ever seen the guy "act" as much as he did in this film and come off as likable before. And it just seems to come off so natural too, which was another shock. While Crowe plays the more hard-edged and serious of the two, Gosling plays off that seriousness by being way more animated and the result is pretty hilarious. I liked these two so much together that I hope that Black continue's to make more of these down the road, maybe with each film set in a different era like the 80's and 90's since they seemed to tackle the 70's so effectively well.

Which brings me to another positive note. Shane Black is an insanely talented director. With only 3 directing credits to his name to date, with this being his third, he displays an even-handed old-school charm. He keeps things simple, but neat. Never once falling into the lame handheld bottomless pit of "quick and easy" filmmaking, which was a breath of fresh air. This film is slick, in an old 70's kind of way. He doesn't superstylize anything, instead letting the art department, production design, and wardrobe department do it for him, resulting in one helluva great looking film. Everything looks and feels authentic, and not fake or that it's trying too hard.

On the flipside, The Nice Guys is also a sad reminder of why they don't make these types of films anymore. As of this post, it has been out for over a month already, and it's only amassed a box office total of $35 million on a $50 million dollar budget. I can't explain it. On the one hand I can't imagine how or why this film could possibly cost $50 million dollars when it's a fairly simple film to make. I'm guessing Gosling and Crowe's paychecks weren't cheap. And on the other hand, here we finally have a film that brings back that throwback feeling 100%, the kind of film we've been aching for to be made again, and still, nobody went to go see it. It's frustrating. I don't know how people expect filmmakers and studio's to attempt anymore of these if they don't go out and support the few that we do get.

I really can't praise this film enough. It's the perfect escape if you're tired of all these big overblown flops. It's the kind of film you've been waiting for if you grew up with films like Lethal Weapon and The Rookie. It's got action, which kicks ass. It's funny as hell, in a legitimate way, without pandering to slapstick. It's smart when it delves into the detective angle, and most of all, it's easily one of the most fun film experiences you will have if you just like to watch a good movie. Since it's too late now that this has come and gone from theaters, support the shit out of this when it hit's the home video market. Rent it, buy it, stream it, but "PAY" to do it so that they will make more!

6.29.2016

Quick Shot Reviews: Death Wish 1 & 2

I've noticed something about myself recently. Being that I'm now 40 years old, I've found myself really being drawn more to the films of Clint Eastwood and Charles Bronson in the 80's, rather than the films I used to obsess about from Van Damme, Seagal, and Chuck Norris. Well, Norris could really fall into both groups depending on the film. But what I'm realizing is that I'm identifying more with the normal guys, the Bronson's and Eastwood's. Whereas the Van Damme's and Seagal's seem to come off more like superhero's. I liked that Bronson is older, and is but a mere mortal man. One who gets hurt, who tires, and doesn't know any type of martial arts. He's tough, in an old school way. Same goes for Eastwood, and I am having a great time digging through both their output from the 80's.

Don't ask me why, because I don't know. But I've never seen any of the Death Wish films. Gasp! Except for Part 3, which was only maybe a year or so ago because I heard how nuts it was. And it was. So recently, in my classic Bronson and Eastwood kick, I decided to just watch the damn film series already. Why haven't I done it yet?! It's from Cannon for God's sake! I wasn't sure if they were good, so I didn't want to blind-buy, but lucky for me, the first 2 films are on Hulu Plus, so now I'm finally getting some use out of my monthly subscription that I often seem to forget I have.

Death Wish (1974)
Directed by: Michael Winner
Category: Action

First up; Death Wish. I must say. Death Wish was a revelation. It's hard to know whether to call it a revenge flick or a vigilante flick, because it's both. I think what surprised me the most was how violent it was, and how well it was made. I'm not familiar with Michael Winner as a director, other than knowing he's done the first 3 films in the franchise, but he seems tailor made for the gritty realism of 70's New York City. Strange considering he's from London. But somehow, some way, his specific style works, and it works insanely well. Mid 70's New York looked both disgusting and beautiful at the same time.

Bronson is a badass, plain and simple. His ability to be both cold and driven is what gives his take on Paul Kersey the depth he needs, and to be believable. So good is he in the role that I couldn't possibly imagine anyone else playing the part. Of course that will change now that the remake has just been announced with Bruce Willis set to star and Eli Roth directing. But hell, I can't imagine the ruckus this film raised way back in 1974 with it's unflinching depiction of violence and rape. But it's almost like it needed to be that shocking, so that you can see why he is driven with the need for vengeance.

What I found most enjoyable, besides the violence, is how everything just works almost perfectly in unison to create this world. All the right talent is here at just the right moments of their career's, and the result is one of the most violent, most entertaining revenge thriller's ever made. It's gritty, unflinching, stylish depiction of revenge in New York City circa the mid 70's makes this a near masterpiece. Don't be like me. If you haven't seen this yet, you better get on it immediately.


Death Wish II (1982)
Directed by: Michael Winner
Category: Action

With how successful Death Wish was, I'm surprised it took them 8 years to make a sequel. Death Wish II takes place this time in Los Angeles. After Kersey's (Bronson) wife is murdered and daughter raped in the first film, he moves with his daughter to L.A. to escape the violence of New York. Only violence seems to follow him everywhere as this time, both his daughter and maid are raped and murdered. Again, Kersey seeks revenge on the gang, and again gains the attention of Det. Frank Ochoa (Vincent Gardenia) who travels to L.A. to try and stop Kersey.

I've heard a lot of people say that Death Wish II is more or less the same film as the first. While that's true to a certain extent, I have to disagree. What I noticed almost immediately is that this sequel just barely teeters on the edge of being crazy, right before Part 3 goes head-on into insane. There are so many moments that elevate this above the first film in terms of sheer audacity, violence, brutality, and just pure raw energy that I found myself enjoying this one more than the original. Mainly though, because it is way more nuts than I was expecting it to be. Not as nuts as the insanity of Part 3, but boy it gets close.

Director Michael Winner again returns, bringing his distinct visual flavor to the film, but one of the surprises that I was not prepared for was the fact that Led Zeppelin's Jimmy Page provided the score, and it's pretty fucking phenomenal. Kind of bizarre and not really the sound you'd expect from a film like this, but it works effectively well. So well in fact that it pushed the entertainment value so much further in this for me. It punches you in the gut in the best possible way.

I've recently heard that Shout! Factory will be releasing this in late July that will feature both the Theatrical Cut as well as the highly sought after Unrated Cut. If this movie could possibly get any more violent, then I'm in. I can't wait.

Death Wish II is a slightly better version of the first one, because it pushes the envelope in nearly every direction even further to the point of nuts, as if it's trying to prepare you for the insanity of the next sequel to come after.

There are countless DVD and Blu ray releases of these films. But you can also currently stream them both on Hulu Plus if you don't want to actually purchase them just yet. 

6.01.2016

Stuart Gordon's Fortress Film Review

VHS cover scan courtesy of retro-daze.org
1992
Directed by: Stuart Gordon
Category: Sci-fi/Action

I can't tell you why, because I don't know, but for one reason or another, this 90's classic popped into my head and I instinctly had a strong urge to revisit it. I think it may be because I've been seeing Christopher Lambert's name repeatedly since I've been revisiting the entire Highlander filmography in order. I guess that could be why. So when I recently came upon it at my local blockbuster (yes, we still have one), I snagged it for a whole $1.50 for 5 nights. All I really remember about this was that it was directed by Stuart Gordon and was mostly set in a high tech prison in the future.

In the future, John (Christopher Lambert) is sent to a super max high tech prison after getting arrested while trying to smuggle his pregnant wife across a checkpoint. Women are only allowed 1 child and being pregnant with their second child violates their quality control. While in the prison John soon plans his escape and is hell-bent on rescuing his wife who is being held prisoner by the prison's vicious warden Poe (Kurtwood Smith). 

I have to admit, Fortress was much better than I was expecting it to be, and way more entertaining than it's reputation leads you to believe. In fact, I'm shocked this doesn't get more love in the cult film circuit. I'd probably put this right up there with say Class of 1999. Just a fun action/sci-fi futuristic hybrid on the low-budget side that utilizes it's budget extremely well. But outside of that, I have to give most of the props to Stuart Gordon. This guy has been an increasingly frustrating director for me. For me, his peak was early in his career, ending right up to when he directed this badass flick. Ever since this his style has become lazy and uninspired. It's like he's totally given up on offering anything interesting on a "visual" level. Most of what I've seen from him since 1992 has been a mess.; lazy handheld camerawork with almost no production value. It's hard to imagine it's even the same guy responsible for such highly revered classics like Re-Animator, From Beyond and Robot Jox. But it is. It's the same guy who would go on to half-ass his way through films like Castle Freak, Dagon and King of the Ants. I honestly don't know how, but trust me, it's the same guy.

But hey, at least we have films like this, films that remind us that there was a time when Gordon gave a shit. So much of this film and it's production is on point, even down to the model work. It's so well done that you can hardly tell, which makes it even more awesome that they didn't try to just go with CGI instead. Even the cast was surprisingly kickass. For starters, you just can't get anymore "menacing" than Kurtwood Smith (Robocop) as the bad guy, unless you had Bruce Payne maybe? And then we have Jeffrey Combs (Re-Animator), Tom Towles (NofLD, Henry), and Vernon Wells (The Road Warrior) just to name a few. It's a pretty great ensemble supporting cast if you ask me, each bringing some flavor to the table.

Even under the confines of being mostly set within a prison, the script does allow for more action and violence than you'd expect. In fact, I was always kind of thrown off guard by how fun and exciting it ended up being. And that also takes me back to how well Stuart Gordon shot this. I can't stress that enough. I mean, this thing looks better than most sci-fi crap that was being released theatrically. And I know that this was in fact released theatrically because I saw it in theaters, but maybe because it didn't have a large marketing campaign it just didn't do well. After revisiting it, I'm shocked frankly. It's a fun, spirited, and well-executed sci-fi action tale that doesn't drag or miss a beat. So much of this works.

There seems to be a small time-frame when writer/director Stuart Gordon began to sway more and more into the sci-fi/action genre, clearly evident with films like this, Robot Jox and Space Truckers. I would have loved to see him continue on this path rather than seeing the droll he's churned out since. Personally, I feel Fortress was his last great film.

Fortress is no masterpiece, but it's one helluva lot of fun, and made exceptionally well. Above all, it's a lot better than you expect it to be, and really, what more could you ask for? I guess for me, not really knowing what to expect and having zero expectations helped, which made the realization that this was indeed a very killer flick all the more entertaining. I would definitely put this in Gordon's Top 5 films, and with that in mind, I'd love to see this get a new release, in widescreen. I know it's gotten a blu ray release, which is shockingly pricey. But I've read that the transfer is nothing to get excited about, though it does come in widescreen, so it has that going for it.