Quick Takes: Maps to the Stars, Consumed

Maps_to_the_StarsMaps to the Stars (2014)
twohalfstar

Starring Julianne Moore, Mia Wasikowska, John Cusack, Evan Bird, Olivia Williams, Robert Pattinson, Kiara Glasco, Sarah Gadon
Directed by David Cronenberg

Maps to the Stars is definitely a better film than the disastrously bleak and boring Cosmopolis, but it’s still nowhere near as great or intriguing as most of Cronenberg’s other works. I must admit to generally disliking most films about Hollywood, though, so this one had more working against it than the average film, Cronenberg or otherwise. Mia Wasikowska delivers a great, subtle performance as our odd and mysterious lead, but in terms of story the “big reveal” and the conclusion aren’t as engaging as the character deserves. Julianne Moore stands out as well, but by this point in her career, that’s to be expected. Originally the film was to star Viggo Mortensen (in the John Cusack role) and Rachel Weisz in Moore’s place; with this knowledge, I would’ve instead loved to see Viggo and Julianne together, as I’m not much of a Cusack fan and I don’t see Weisz as being especially suited to this role. In any case, Maps to the Stars is a weird, disappointing movie, but at least it’s a step in the right direction. A few weeks ago, I read about Cronenberg having challenges funding his films these days, and honestly after the one-two punch of Cosmopolis and Maps to the Stars, I can kind of understand why the money men are hesitant. But whatever, he’s David Cronenberg! He should be allowed to make whatever he wants, y’know?

consumedConsumed (2014)
by David Cronenberg

fourstar

After recently going through all his films, I had to read Cronenberg’s debut novel. It’s a brilliant piece of work, as good as his best films, without question. A welcome return to body horror that consistently made me uncomfortable (in a good way) and had me squirming and wincing in empathetic pain. To achieve that with a film is impressive, but to do so without a single image is something else entirely! Consumed is a testament to the power of Cronenberg’s craft as a writer and a storyteller, and it in no way feels like a debut novel. It’s the work of a seasoned, visionary artist, and anyone who loves his films should check it out. Consumed is easily my favorite Cronenberg project since eXistenZ. His last couple of films weren’t great, but make no mistake: Cronenberg has definitely still got it! If you’re intrigued by a book that brings together body horror, journalism, 3D printing and cannibalism, then Consumed is for you!

Quick Takes: The Happiness of the Katakuris, The Babadook, Terror Train

katakurisThe Happiness of the Katakuris [カタクリ家の幸福] (2001)
threehalfstar

Starring Kenji Sawada, Keiko Matsuzaka, Shinji Takeda, Naomi Nishida, Kiyoshiro Imawano, Tetsuro Tamba, Naoto Takenaka, Tamaki Miyazaki, Takashi Matsuzaki
Directed by Takashi Miike

It’s a stretch to call Takashi Miike’s The Happiness of the Katakuris a horror movie, but it does require being something of a horror fan to truly enjoy its multi-genre insanity. The premise is pretty standard horror movie fare, but don’t be fooled; this is anything but a standard film. The Katakuri family has opened a Bed & Breakfast in a remote part of Japan and are very happy when they receive their first guest. They are not so overjoyed when they discover he’s killed himself, which plays out on-screen in one of the finest moments of movie musical I think I’ve ever seen. Yes, The Happiness of the Katakuris is a warped, horror-ish musical comedy… and it’s a blast. According to the booklet included in Arrow’s wonderful Blu-Ray edition, there’s apparently a whole genre of films similar to this in Japan, but until I see definitive proof I’ll regard The Happiness of the Katakuris as a unique product. Besides, even if wacky Japanese musicals are a thing, I can’t imagine the whole genre is quite this inspired. It’s also worthwhile to note that Miike’s film is a remake of Kim Jee-Woon’s The Quiet Family, but I haven’t seen that one so I can’t offer any comparisons. If you’re into weird cinema that strays far, far off the beaten path, or you’re looking to completely baffle your conservative, mainstream friends and relatives, The Happiness of the Katakuris is a fantastic selection. Plus: Tetsuro Tamba (who I’m familiar with from his roles in Hong Kong films such as The Water Margin)!

babadookThe Babadook (2014)
fourstar

Starring Essie Davis, Noah Wiseman, Hayley McElhinney, Daniel Henshall, Barbara West, Benjamin Winspear, Chloe Hurn, Jacquy Phillips, Bridget Walters
Directed by Jennifer Kent

In general, I’m one of those people saying that modern horror just isn’t up to snuff. But then something like The Babadook comes along and proves me completely wrong. Artfully well-crafted and featuring an exceptional pair of performances from its leads (Essie Davis & Noah Wiseman), The Babadook is gripping from start to finish. I don’t want to spoil anything so I’ll remain vague, but what set the movie apart is that it engages as both a visceral horror movie and as an intellectual piece. I spent the whole film in rapt attention, creeped out to the hilt and always questioning and deconstructing what the film was feeding me. It’s even more impressive to learn that this is the feature debut of director Jennifer Kent! Cross your fingers, say the name of your favorite horror film three times into the mirror, and wish upon a star that The Babadook is the beginning of a stellar career and not a lone spark in the darkness. Either way, The Babadook is fan-fucking-tastic, and you need to check it out.

terror-train-movie-poster-1980-1020541661Terror Train (1980)
threestar

Starring Jamie Lee Curtis, Ben Johnson, Hart Bochner, David Copperfield, Derek McKinnon, Sandee Currie, Timothy Webber, Anthony Sherwood, Howard Busgang, Steve Michaels, Greg Swanson, Vanity
Directed by Roger Spottiswoode

You can quickly describe Terror Train as “a slasher set aboard a train,” but to do so is to overlook the fun of the movie. It’s a slasher on a train! With crazy Halloween masks, Jamie Lee Curtis and magic courtesy of the one and only David Copperfield! But maybe that doesn’t do it for you; you’re more of a discerning cinephile type. Well, Terror Train marks the directorial debut of Roger Spottiswoode, director of such cinematic classics as Turner & Hooch, Stop! Or My Mom Will Shoot, and Tomorrow Never Dies! If that’s still not enough cred for you, Terror Train features cinematography by Oscar-winner John Alcott, who got his big break/promotion while working on something called 2001: A Space Odyssey and went on to shoot such classics as A Clockwork Orange, Barry Lyndon, The Shining, and Baby: Secret of the Lost Legend! As you might have figured out by now, I don’t have much to say about Terror Train! Nonetheless, it was a fun ride, and fans of late ’70s / early ’80s horror will most likely have a good time with it, too.

The Expendables 3 (2014)

the-expendables-3-posterStarring Sylvester Stallone, Jason Statham, Mel Gibson, Wesley Snipes, Kelsey Grammer, Antonio Banderas, Glen Powell, Victor Ortiz, Ronda Rousey, Kellan Lutz, Harrison Ford, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Dolph Lundgren, Randy Couture, Terry Crews, Jet Li, Ivan Kostadinov, Robert Davi

Directed by Patrick Hughes

Expectations: Low, but hopeful.

threestar


There’s no doubt that Expendables 3 received the worst critical reception of the franchise, and the general Internet scuttlebutt seemed to agree that Expendables 3 was bad. I let this influence me, and I pushed back seeing the film into the dreaded “sometime.” But now I have seen Expendables 3 and I can say without a hint of sarcasm or hyperbole that it is a great entry into the series. I love JCVD too much for it to surpass the 2nd film, but I definitely prefer it to the original. I’m curious what people didn’t like about it, actually. It’s basically just like the other two, only with even more people. And this one actually has some heart, too! [Note: The original two may have heart of their own, but I haven’t seen them in three years and all I remember are the cameos and the explosions.]

Storywise, this one is a bit convoluted to explain quickly due to its structure. It’s not actually convoluted, it’s just one of those movies with a slowly unfolding story that is easy to spoil if you break it down into a synopsis. So suffice it to say: there’s a bad guy that has done some evil shit, and Stallone and a varied cast of his Expendable buddies will be along for the ride to take him down. Besides, if you’re even remotely interested in this movie, that’s all you need to know. Are there explosions? Yes. Does Stallone & crew kick ass? Yes. Ticket sold. If you’re not that person and you’re still watching these movies, you might want to re-think your life because you’re clearly unable to learn from past mistakes.

Continue reading The Expendables 3 (2014) →

Quick Takes: Ichi the Killer, The Legend Is Born: Ip Man, John Wick

ichiIchi the Killer [殺し屋1] (1994)
threehalfstar

Starring Tadanobu Asano, Nao Omori, Shin’ya Tsukamoto, Paulyn Sun, Susumu Terajima, Shun Sugata, Toru Tezuka, Yoshiki Arizono, Kiyohiko Shibukawa, Satoshi Niizuma, Suzuki Matsuo, Jun Kunimura
Directed by Takashi Miike

Ichi the Killer is the third feature I’ve seen from Takashi Miike, and damn he’s good. A film like this that’s so incredibly bloody and violent, but yet the main takeaway is the need for a deep intellectual discussion… that’s hard to pull off. It ultimately felt like Miike had crafted a film that wonders about the people who watch these kinds of films (or violent, “negative” media in general) with an armchair bloodlust. This all seemed to hinge on one small moment during the finale when a character in extreme peril looks directly into the camera with intense fear, while that same camera is presenting a first-person view from the character instilling this fear in the other. In any case, this is definitely not a film for the squeamish, as it’s one hell of an extreme, sadistic bloodbath. Audition may have gotten the “this movie is so crazy and shocking” press, but Ichi the Killer is a million times worse than Audition. The nipple scene is sheer torture! I literally pushed my chair back as far as it would go, cringed and repeated “Goddamn!” in a whisper for the next 30 seconds or so. Good stuff.

TheLegendIsBornIpMan+2010-3-bThe Legend Is Born: Ip Man [葉問前傳] (2010)
AKA Ip Man Zero
threestar

Starring Dennis To, Crystal Huang Yi, Xu Jiao, Hins Cheung King-Hin, Fan Siu-Wong, Yuen Biao, Lam Suet, Yip Chun, Bernice Liu Bik-Yi, Sire Ma Choi, Rose Chan Ka-Wun, Sammo Hung
Directed by Herman Yau

I initially avoided The Legend Is Born: Ip Man out of respect for the original Ip Man films. I didn’t want to see any watered-down knock-offs. But then it occurred to me that it was no different than all the Brucesploitation films that are a lot of fun, so I plunged in head-first, hoping it wouldn’t be as trashy as a you might expect a knock-off to be. And, you know, it actually felt more respectful of Ip Man’s legacy than Ip Man 2 was! The Legend Is Born even features Ip Man’s son, Ip Chun, in a wonderful role as an elder student of Wing Chun that has developed a more refined and varied approach to the fighting style that revolutionizes Ip Man’s way of thinking. This reminded me greatly of Bruce Lee’s Jeet Kune Do style, and if this section of the film was truthful to Ip Man’s life, then I imagine it was this spirit of openness to other styles and ways of thinking that he would later pass on to Bruce. I loved the focus on Wing Chun in The Legend Is Born, and it’s definitely one for Hong Kong fans to watch. In some ways it actually felt like an older-style kung fu film that is generally no longer made, and you know that kind of thing is a quick way to my heart. And it has Yuen Biao and Sammo Hung in supporting roles!

johnwickJohn Wick (2014)
AKA Sin Control, John Wick: Sin Control

twostar

Starring Keanu Reeves, Michael Nyqvist, Alfie Allen, Willem Dafoe, Dean Winters, Adrianne Palicki, Omer Barnea, Toby Leonard Moore, Daniel Bernhardt, John Leguizamo, Ian McShane, Lance Reddick, Clarke Peters
Directed by Chad Stahelski & David Leitch

I just didn’t connect with John Wick at all. I blame the fan hype that sold it as some kind of John Woo-style gun movie. I didn’t see that in it AT ALL. The way the violence was handled felt really gross. It’s the same problem I have with a lot of modern horror films: everything looks too damn real or graphic for me to just have fun with it. I am forced to reckon with the reality of the situation, which in this case is John Wick revenge-killing a whole shitload of dudes. All the violence is really flippant and backed by “cool” music, too, so everything about the violence felt glorified and dirty to me. I can’t have fun with that. Does this even make sense to anyone but me? It’s hard to explain. Whatever. I didn’t like it. ’nuff said.

Quick Takes: The Dentist, The Dentist 2: Brace Yourself, Rise of the Legend

dentist_1The Dentist (1996)
threestar

Starring Corbin Bernsen, Linda Hoffman, Michael Stadvec, Ken Foree, Tony Noakes, Molly Hagan, Patty Toy, Jan Hoag, Virginya Keehne, Earl Boen, Christa Sauls, Mark Ruffalo, Lise Colleen Simms
Directed by Brian Yuzna

If there’s one thing that the majority of people hate, it’s going to the dentist. Now imagine visiting a dentist who just found out his wife is cheating on him, yanking away the last straw holding together his sanity. Sounds fun, right? Dr. Alan Feinstone has had a busy morning, so by the time he arrives at his office it’s a few hours late and the waiting room is full of eager patients. But he’s a professional, he can pull it together and get the job done. Or not. Feinstone’s lapse in sanity makes him kind of wig out when he’s looking at people’s teeth, seeing their mouths as festering maws of disease and decay in need of major restorative work. Corbin Bernsen is wonderfully deranged as Dr. Feingold, and the FX work induces so much intense mouth trauma that I felt like I was actually in the dentist’s chair myself. Especially effective are the large-scale models for the mouth interior closeups, allowing us to see every bursting root and tooth drilling in stunning detail. It’s not a perfect movie by any means, but it’s well worth a horror fan’s time.

dentist_2The Dentist 2: Brace Yourself (1998)
AKA The Dentist 2: You Know the Drill

twohalfstar

Starring Corbin Bernsen, Jillian McWhirter, Jeff Doucette, Susanne Wright, Jim Antonio, Lee Dawson, Wendy Robie, Ralph P. Martin, Clint Howard, Linda Hoffman
Directed by Brian Yuzna

The Dentist 2: Brace Yourself has what is perhaps the greatest, most pun-tastic sequel title of all time. The film doesn’t quite live up to expectations this brings, but it’s still a great sequel to the original film. While it continues to present a similar “festering mouths of bad hygiene must be punished” structure, the sequel actually goes off in a different direction that changes the tone. In the original film, Dr. Feinstone was progressively more and more batshit crazy, but in the sequel he has moments where we can sense the man underneath the madness. There are shreds of regret and thoughtfulness that endear the character, making you actually kind of root for him in this one. It’s not as effective a horror movie, but it is a great sequel that explores what makes the character tick.

RiseOfTheLegendRise of the Legend [黃飛鴻之英雄有夢] (2014)
threehalfstar

Starring Eddie Peng Yu-Yan, Sammo Hung, Wang Luo-Dan, Boran Jing Bo-Ran, AngelaBaby, Tony Leung Ka-Fai, Feng Jia-Yi, Byron Mann, Wong Cho-Lam, John Zhang Jin, Julius Brian Siswojo
Directed by Roy Chow Hin-Yeung

There’s a lot of modern filmmaking techniques (such as quite a bit of CG, some Matrix bullet time, etc.) that should make me not like Rise of the Legend, but damn if I didn’t enjoy the hell out of this movie. This is the first Wong Fei-Hung feature film since 1997’s Once Upon a Time in China and America, but you should really do your best to put Jet Li’s interpretation of the character out of your mind before beginning this film. This is not your standard Wong Fei-Hung, instead it’s like a prequel of sorts (in a different way than Iron Monkey), and this version of Wong Fei-Hung bears little resemblance to the folk hero we’ve come to know and love. Has Wong Fei-Hung ever decapitated a guy on-screen? Well… he does in Rise of the Legend (and it’s quite a stunning decap, too). The more recognizable character does eventually emerge in the third act, and with it my big goofy grin also came to the party. Even the Wong Fei-Hung song made an appearance! The action is fun to watch, with great choreography by Corey Yuen and some really incredible wirework in spots. It’s a very visually modern film, and parts of the fights are awkward because of this, but the choreography shines through to entertain handily. Eddie Peng is great as a young Wong Fei-Hung, and Sammo Hung is his stalwart, badass self as the villain. Tony Leung Ka-Fai (AKA Big Tony) also plays a wonderful Wong Kei-ying amidst a superbly well-cast film. If you dig Wong Fei-Hung, I say check it out!

Quick Takes: Hardware, Snowpiercer, Brotherhood of Blades

968fullHardware (1990)
threehalfstar

Starring Dylan McDermott, Stacey Travis, John Lynch, Mark Northover, William Hootkins, Carl McCoy
Directed by Richard Stanley

I’m surprised I haven’t heard more about Hardware over the years. It’s an ultra-fun killer robot movie that is legitimately frightening in parts, and it’s one of those rare genre films made with such visual flair and artistry that it could easily crossover into the more highbrow conversation on film. Absolutely fantastic cinematography is around every corner, as are tons of wicked gory delights. The robot does seem rather stupid at times, but if I reformed myself from a pile of scrap metal and broken parts I wouldn’t be all there either. This is the kind of movie to whip out when someone says disparaging things about low-budget movies.

snowpiercerSnowpiercer (2013)
twohalfstar

Starring Chris Evans, Song Kang-ho, John Hurt, Tilda Swinton, Jamie Bell, Octavia Spencer, Ed Harris, Ewen Bremner, Go Ah-sung, Alison Pill
Directed by Bong Joon-ho

After reviewing the Snowpiercer graphic novels, I was really stoked to see what Boon Jong-Ho would make of them on-screen. Unfortunately, I wasn’t as thrilled with the results as I thought I’d be. Snowpiercer is a very entertaining film that moves quite briskly, but for a story all about class struggle I found it to be rather shallow. Tilda Swinton is brilliant in her supporting role, though. Definitely well-made and worth watching, but I guess I expected something more cerebral than this was. Even still, a great English debut for Bong.

brotherhood-of-blades-posterBrotherhood of Blades [繡春刀] (2014)
twohalfstar

Starring Chang Chen, Ye Qing, Chin Shih-Chieh, Wang Qian-Yuan, Ethan Li Dong-Xue, Nie Yuan, Zhao Li-Xin
Directed by Lu Yang

I think I might like Brotherhood of Blades better on a second watch. I would have my 50% knowledge of what was going on to build on, and I wouldn’t have any expectations that it was a wuxia film. It’s actually a period-set action drama with no supernatural elements, so I was rather disappointed that it didn’t live up to my expectations. As a period drama it excels, though. Fantastic costumes go a long way, and the cast Brotherhood of Blades wear some damn fine duds. The fights aren’t all that special, though, with unhealthy amounts of uninspired choreography, quick-cut editing, and the shutter speed thing from Saving Private Ryan. It makes for action that is VERY modern, and I’m just too old school to embrace it. Yes, even in 2015 when these techniques are at least 15 years old. If you like Chinese costume dramas and modern action, you should definitely try this one.

Stephen reviews: Appleseed α (2014)

appleseedalpha_1Appleseed α [アップルシード アルファ] (2014)
AKA Appleseed Alpha

Starring Luci Christian, David Matranga, Wendel Calvert, Chris Hutchinson, Adam Gibbs, Brina Palencia, Elizabeth Bunch, Joshua Sheltz

Directed by Shinji Aramaki


Welcome to the last, or at least most recent, Appleseed film. I’m glad to finally be here because that means I don’t have to keep watching this stuff any more. I’ve gotten more than my fill of Appleseed this past month. I held out a bit of hope that this new one would be an improvement, but that was a false hope. Appleseed α is pretty much the same as the others. Except for that whole part about not having the Japanese audio. Yeah, that was a rather unpleasant surprise.

I poked about for an explanation, and the best I could come up with is the same explanation Vampire Hunter D: Bloodlust had, that the Japanese audio wasn’t finished yet, and may still be in production as far as I know. I didn’t look very hard, though. Unlike Bloodlust, Appleseed α isn’t all that great of a film. Bloodlust‘s crappy dub was a tragedy, but Appleseed? Eh, who cares? It’s not worth getting bothered over. The good thing is that, also unlike Bloodlust, the actors in Appleseed were actually trying to act. I grew up with anime in the 1990s, and I will never ever get over the initial fear when watching an English dub that it’ll sound like shit. I know the industry standard has improved since then, but at this point it’s a knee-jerk reaction that I’m never going to grow out of.

Continue reading Stephen reviews: Appleseed α (2014) →

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