Movie Reviews 217 – House of Flying Daggers (2004)

April 15, 2015

House of Flying DaggersCrouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon may have introduced worldwide audiences to flying Asian warriors using bamboo trees as catapulting launchers, but House of Flying Daggers managed to put whole armies in those trees.

As the populace grows tired of an evil and corrupt Tang dynasty emperor and his minions, a rebellious and mysterious new vigilante group called the House of Flying Daggers emerges across the countryside. Local police forces are ordered to quell the rebellion and after they manage to kill the clan leader, it falls upon two local small town constabularies, Leo (Andy Lau) and Jin (Takeshi Kaneshiro) to find the new leader. Having been tipped off that a young new hospitality dancer, Xiao Mei (Ziyi Zhang), is reputed to have ties with the outlaw group, the policemen devise a plot wherein Leo arrests the girl only to have Jin come to her rescue and after gaining her confidence, infiltrate the group to find the new leader.

Thus begins a story replete with layers of lies, deceit, mysteries and many surprises as the true picture is patiently unveiled. In the end we are left with a complex love triangle and deadly duels.

But the plot is merely a vehicle for the true star of the movie, the breathtaking cinematography and set designs. Dazzling battle displays, never ending cycles of lavish colors from the lush green forests, kaleidoscopic dance cathedrals and even the blood red splattered battlegrounds are the canvas that make up this film’s print.

And don’t think for a moment those flying daggers merely serve to enhance an exotic sounding title. There are more flying daggers here than you can shake a bamboo stick it at. In fact, most of the daggers are the pointed bamboo stick variety and perform incredible mid-air path acrobatics that you won’t believe. And the magnificent effects not only accent the battles but encompasses  props throughout, from flowing scarves right down to flying bean treats.

A stately addition to the list of accomplished far east movies that needs to be seen in order to be fully appreciated.

Movie Reviews 216 – The Woods (2006)

April 8, 2015

The WoodsYet another story featuring the prototypical child being dumped at a boarding school after other scholastic avenues have been exhausted based on the child’s penchant for mischief. This and many other horror staples are revisited in director Lucky McKee’s The Woods.

The ‘devouring forest’ horror cliché has been used often enough for all horror hounds to be familiar with whether it be the group of kids in a cabin or the party of hunters being both predator and prey. But this is the first time the forest actually leaves behind a body shaped mound of decaying leaves in the victims beds once the deed is done.

Lead actress Agnes Bruckner (Heather) is perfect in the role of the forlorn forgotten child while Patricia Clarkson plays the impassive headmistress Ms. Traverse so effectively that we’re actually convinced that she has all the girls best intentions in mind. But in this case, the school is being run by a coven of witches that are seeking long overdue release from being confined in this all girl academy in the woods precipitated by a visit of three young witches who unleashed their fury ages ago in a nearby village.

Heather sustains brief happiness with new found friend Marcy, but soon runs into afoul with the school administration and even more so at the hands of Samantha, the tall blonde fellow student with an attitude.

The witches have been killing off their pupils one by one over the years, keeping then in line with spiked milk and the forest whose tentacled branches crawl into the dorm rooms at night, enveloping their next victim. They have been waiting all these years for a gifted one that will release them from the school and Heather’s knack for magical tricks convinces the witches that their long wait is finally over. After getting rid of Marcy and other girls they finally get to Heather one night, but luckily Heather had managed to get word to her parents who come to her rescue at the last minute.

The background flashback depicting the witches introduction and association with the school and what caused the witches to be held captive is a bit murky. Other than having dreams of some of the past events, Heather’s only ability seems to be levitating objects or balancing them to be more accurate. So even exactly how she can help the witches is confusing.

As is often the case in such movies, it’s the interaction between opposing students and the school authority that presents the tension and drama driving the film. This is where this movie really shines. Heather is focal and how she interacts with those few other characters, Marcy,  Ms. Traverse and to a lesser extent Samantha and her parents, keep viewers glued to the screen. Her dad Joe is played by none other than Bruce Campbell (delivering a fine ‘serious’ performance for a change) who certainly knows a thing or two about witches in the woods.

Another big plus is the 1965 time era which adds seasonable fashions and wonderfully dated technology to add more charm to the movie.

My net impression of the movie? While the husk may be a bit rough and jagged, the film does manage to keep the underbrush creep factor garden fresh.

 

Movie Reviews 215 – Vampire Conspiracy (2005)

March 31, 2015

The Vampire ConspiracyMelding elements of human drama is a basic ingredient of any decent horror movie. But when the drama overshadows the horror, as is the case in Vampire Conspiracy you have to question why the horror element is there at all. Worse, when the drama itself falls flat, you have a mess of a movie that can neither be described as a horror, nor a drama. You have a snooze fest.

Taking a page from the script of Cube (and probably another half dozen movies) the film begins with a group of people, all strangers to one another, suddenly finding themselves waking up in a desolate closed room. After the obligatory general questioning, arguing, finger pointing and banging on walls, a vampire suddenly makes an appearance and spews a diatribe which, in a nutshell is ‘you have to figure it out yourselves’ and then disappears as magically as he came.

Doors suddenly appear now and then leading them to rooms with one of the Seven Heavenly Virtues written on the floor (more on that later). The corridors are also teaming with ‘the undead’ zombies that the prisoners have to evade. As the discourse continues and people divulge certain aspects of their past, pieces slowly fall into place and they realize that their past lives are all related and directly or indirectly hinging on a drug bust gone bad. Are they all guilty of some misdeed? And what was the motive for the vampire to round them up as he did?

This really could have been a more interesting movie with a little more effort but many of it’s faults are unforgivable. For one, they couldn’t even get some of the Seven Heavenly Virtues correct (or keep count for that matter) so that whole McGuffin is nothing more than annoyance. Trying to imply that there is a complex maze of corridors with many rooms when the real set consists of only one nondescript room and a single cornered corridor filmed from a hundred different angles can only go so far. Sure it’s a budget movie, but you need more than ten feet of corridor and more than one lousy room to make the effect believable. But the worst part is the script which, often boring, also has a lot of unconvincing and out of character dialogue. I give them credit for trying to create full characterizations but as soon as the characters say things they obviously would not given their situation, all the effort falls flat. The acting isn’t all that bad, which is more the shame given the lousy script.

The only conspiracy here is how this ever became a movie. This is another movie from The Midnight Horror Collection: Blood Predators.

Movie Reviews 214 – Troll Hunter (2010)

March 26, 2015

trolljägaren-(2010)After having a surprise hit with zombie Nazis in 2009 with Dead Snow, the Norwegian film industry surprised us again the following year with Troll Hunter picking up genre fandom awards and lots of great press.

After reading the rave reviews for this offbeat movie I was a little distressed to learn that it adopts the dreaded ‘found footage’ format, one that I’ve never been a fan of and one that I find filmmakers take too many liberties with. But I’m glad to say that the format works here for two reasons. The first  reason is that the movie is a light toned mockumentary so we’re not supposed to take the found footage too serious in the first place. The second is that it avoids the pit fall of using the format to conveniently obscure the ‘monsters’ the viewers are promised. On the contrary, if you’re watching with a hunger to see actual trolls, this movie delivers in spades. In fact one of that great achievements is the fantastic job they did designing the Trolls in great detail and doing it justice with the CGI.

A trio of young journalist filmmakers decide to follow up on the story of a bear poacher, one for which a particular reclusive hunter has been tagged by licensed hunters as the obvious culprit for the bear carcases that have been turning up. The trio start following the poacher to try to catch him in the act. Instead they learn that he is on a mission to stop trolls that have been popping up all over the countryside, and he uses bear carcases as decoys to explain away the actual prey the trolls has gotten to, the animals and the odd human here and there.

But the hunter is fed up of the solitude and secrecy he has been harboring for many years, all covertly sanctioned by a select few others, one being a government TSS (Troll Security Service) lackey. He rebels and decides to tell everything about the long history of trolls and troll hunting to his new found friends and brings them along for the hunt.

While lots of details remain obscure, the hunter gives us a taxonomy of trolls, from the smallest Ringlefinch to the mighty Jötnar. We learn why some have three heads, what they like to eat, and how they turn to stone (and occasionally blow up). It’s all good fun and a long overdue Troll movie since we were subjected to Troll 2.

I had so much fun, I’m going to dust off my other Norwegian DVDs post haste: Dead Snow and Cold Prey.

Ser deg seinare! (See you later!)

Movie Reviews 213 – Switchblade Sisters (1975)

March 17, 2015

Switchblade SistersQuentin Tarantino describes director Jack Hill as “the Howard Hawks of exploitation movies” and given that Hill created movies as diverse as Spider baby and Coffy and has also written movies like The Terror and Dementia 13, the comparison seems fitting.

Released as one of Tarantino’s Rolling Thunder feature DVDs, Switchblade Sisters, is part gang movie, part female prison and part girls gone wild. The ‘success’ (and I put that in quotes because you have to appreciate this kind of movie) is that it is really greater than the sum of all it’s parts. The acting is suspect, the script is a joke, the sex is only suggestive, the blood is scant, and even the promised violence (when not hysterically funny based on inexperienced stunt fighters) is lame. Even the climactic final death scene is only conveyed via a projected shadow. But somehow, when you put it all together, it’s fun to watch much like going back in time and watching a cheesy 60’s cop show. Only with a lower budget and standards.

Lace (Robbie Lee) is the lacy camisole wearing leader of a girl gang called the Dagger Debs, so named on account that they are the female constituents of the Silver Dagger gang, led by her boyfriend Dominic (Asher Brauner).  Wanting to impress the Silver Daggers one day at the local dinner, the Debs decide to clear out all the other customers so that they can take over the tables. But one lone innocent looking dinner they try to chase out proves to be more than a handful. Maggie (Joanne Nail) fights back and soon earns the respect of the girls. Well all the girls except for Patch (Monica Gail) who bore the brunt of Maggie’s defence in that first encounter. Holding a grudge, Patch decides to get even and does so by making Lace believe that Maggie has sights on taking over the girls and nabbing Dominic as well. Patch’s manipulation of Lace creates an ever growing wedge among the gang, one that soon turns deadly when a rival gang is forced to share territory.

The movie is rich with groovy street talk, funky cringe worthy clothes and roller skating rink scenes but the retro illusion is shattered by the simplistic dialogue and unrealistic situations. The movie tries to be both a high school comedy with corny classroom jokes and a tough gang movie that just doesn’t ring true. But if you can elevate yourself over the superficial aspects, it becomes enjoyable for what it attempts to pull off. Even though the characters are silly, you are drawn into all the scheming amongst the girls and want to see who wins out in the end.

Sadly Hill regular Sid Haig sat this one out. His acting skills could have been used as all the male actor’s really miss the mark and are unconvincing douches. When it comes to the girls, Lee’s high pitched nasal voice (which she later made good use of as a voice actor for kiddie shows) is beyond annoying here. But Nail and Gail are more credible which was needed to keep audience interest just enough. Not as good as some of Jack Hill’s other movies, but still a must for his fans.

11/22/63 – Stephen King (2011)

March 7, 2015

11-22-63-coverNever one to be pegged into a hole, horror meister Stephen King has dabbled into many other genres before including mystery (The Colorado Kid) and fantasy (The Dark Tower series) and even plain drama (The Shawshank Redemption). He even wrote the underrated science fiction The Running Man, under his Richard Bachman non de plume. But writing a science fiction time travel story was stretch even for him. And what better topic to tackle than the assassination of JFK, one of the most controversial and conspiracy ladled event in history.

Jake Epping is a simple, middle of the road school teacher when Al, the owner of his favorite dinner, confronts him with an impossible yet incontrovertible time travel portal that he stumbled upon at the back of his storage room. The quirk of the portal is that it places travelers to a specific time and place, 11:58 a.m. September 9,1958, Lisbon Falls, Maine, every time they enter. Once they return, they have lost exactly two minutes in contemporary time regardless of the time they have spent in the past. Al, now visibly order after having just returned from a multi-year trip to the past, then tells James of his master plan to reconcile one of recent history’s greatest misfortunes, the assassination of president John F. Kennedy, an act that he believes could eliminate the Vietnam war and other tragedies.

Al used to make regular pilgrimages to the past, regularly buying extremely cheap meat that he brought back to sell in his dinner. When Al got the idea to make meaningful changes he traced and followed Lee Harvey Oswald up until a short time before the alleged actual shooting, taking detailed notes of every aspect he could, but not being able to avert the killing himself. Now on his deathbed, he wants Jake to take his notes and follow through to change history.

With some trepidation Jake agrees, but only by first trying to correct another crime earlier, opting to change the life of one of his former students. But changing history is tricky business. The harmonic forces of nature fight back and the bigger the change you’re trying to effect the greater the push back. After averting a murder that would impact the formative years of his future student, Jake returns only to learn that while he did positively impact his students conditions growing up, the end result was not what he expected.

But now convinced he could can change history, he decides to forge ahead (well, not ahead, behind in fact) and sacrifice going back to 1958 again, and then living out the intervening years until the title date of 22nd November 1963, the date that Kennedy was killed. Jake takes on an entirely new persona in the past, but road to complete his mission does not only encounter natural forces putting up stumbling blocks, life gets in the way. Jake discovers that the past can be quite, comforting and innocent place, devoid of modern nuisances. And then he meets Sadie…

Clocking in at 840 odd pages 11/22/63 is what I like to call a Brick novel. The second trip back for the actual Kennedy mission starts only slightly before halfway point of novel. So the novel is really two journeys, the first laying the foundation and some of the ground rules for time travel. That is not to say that this is a padded novel. King manages to hold interest throughout, most of it being quite riveting. If anything, the pace loses a bit of steam after the ‘event’ and some tough decisions that have to be made by Jake. But the distinction between the first and second time travel trips can almost be considered as two great stories for the price of one, both trips peppered with anecdotal historical events which in themselves can be engaging. In short, another great King novel.

Movie Reviews 212 – So I Married an Axe Murderer (1993)

March 5, 2015

So I Married an Axe MurdererFollowing in the wake of Wayne’s World, Mike Myers’ “So I Married an Axe Murderer” was a disappointment at the box office and a film that has been pretty much forgotten since. But those fortunate enough to get their hands on this lost gem are in for a surprise. For one thing, this is 100% the Mike Myers we know and love for all his daring humour, comedic voices, and witty antics, not some watered down, phoned in effort. And the movie has plenty of surprises, all good ones.

Charlie Mackenzie (Myers) has a history of failed relationships. Whenever things get serious he ends up convincing himself that his companions are flawed for the most obscure of reasons. When he falls for Harriet (Nancy Travis) who runs an international butcher shop, he finally thinks he’s met the right woman. But when her profile and some elements of her past line up with a tabloid murderess on the lam, he becomes convinced that he may be her next victim.

The laughs roar right from the start of the movie as Charlie performs a beatnik poetry routine at a bohemian club, a routine he goes through for every woman he dumps. After picking up some haggis at Harriet’s meat shop we are then subjected to his Scottish family, boasting a portrait “Scottish Wall of Fame” (Sean Connery and Jackie Stewart being most prominent), while the The Bay City Rollers bellows in the background. This is where we are treated to Myers playing the dual role of Charlie’s dad, an raunchy old time Scotsman who walks around the house in his underwear, curses a blue streak and comically insults everything and everyone including all family members. Watching and listening to Myers play a bigoted Scottish fart is reason enough to watch this movie.

While not a perfect movie (I figured out who the real killer was almost as soon as the character appeared onscreen), it is undeniably a funny movie and has scores of well known comedians in small roles including Phil Hartman, Steven Wright, Michael Richards and one of my personal favorites, Alan Arkin. Arkin plays a mild mannered police chief to Charlie’s best friend Tony (Anthony LaPaglia) who joined the Police force based on all the cop shows and movies he watched as a kid. When the reality of what a daily cop routine is really like depresses him, he convinces his chief to be more like “the nasty loud mouth chief in Starsky and Hutch”.

One of the biggest surprises for me was the great performance by the charming Travis, an actress I was not familiar with and which I questioned as to why I haven’t seen her in more movies like this.

So the next time you can’t find your copy of Wayne’s World 2, or Austin Powers in Goldmember, plunk in this movie instead. You won’t be disappointed. Party on!

Movie Reviews 211 – Curse of the Wolf (2006)

March 4, 2015

Curse of the WolfAnother entry from the The Midnight Horror Collection: Blood Predators, Curse of the Wolf could just as aptly be called “Curse of the Neophyte Movie Maker Doing Just About Everything Wrong”. OK maybe that’s a bit harsh, but I consider myself a seasoned (and hardened) Z movie watcher with plenty of ‘first movies’ on my cinematic watching regimen that I can spot all the novice mistakes that many first time directors fall into and watching this one was like ticking of that checklist of gaffes.

The prologue scene before the credits went so long I was convinced they skipped them entirely until the pounding metal music sizzled my eardrum while near illegible goth scrawl appeared with the requisite flaming background. But even worse was the first twenty minutes showing a girl running away from a group of lycantropes (semi werewolf/humans) without much explanation. When we finally get one it’s all muddled with with group fight scenes that seem to pop up every ten minutes. I swear that director Len Kabasinski must have recruited the rest of the cast from his local Tae Kwon Do or Karate school since just about every character did a 360 twist head kick.

Dakota (Renee Porada) wants out of the clan and she’s taking some drugs normally dispensed by veterinarians to keep retain her human side. The clan’s loquacious leader is urged to forget about the the girl from most of followers, but stubbornly persists in having her come back. The  movie settles down a bit by the second half when Dakota befriends a bunch bar regulars who decide to come to her aid. Needless to say they too all went to the same Dojo as they are equally trained in leaping head kicks.

Most of the movie is underlit so you can barely make out some of the scenes. There are the miraculous night turing into day, and then turning back into night all within seconds, continuity errors. Then there are the ‘lets shot some gory, bloody, dismemberment outtakes that don’t really add anything to the plot, but hey we thought it looked cool so we added it’ scenes. All badly underlit so we don’t really know what (or who) are being torn apart. Keeping with the ‘underlit’ theme are the werewolf costumes and makeup. Perhaps these shots were purposefully underlit because what was discernible was not good at all.

Anyhow you get the idea. After a few mandatory boob shots there is the big final battle and good wins over evil. Oh, did I just spoil it for you? Sorry. Consider yourself spared. In comparison Bachelor Party in the Bungalow of the Damned which is on the same DVD now seems like five star opulent production.

Movie Reviews 210 – Sucker Punch (2011)

February 21, 2015

Sucker PunchDirector Zack Snyder already proved he could make movies look dazzling with some of the most ambitious CGI and special effects in some of his earlier movies like Watchmen and 300. But his followup Sucker Punch didn’t quite live up to expectations and quite frankly I didn’t even know about this movie for some time. In fact, my introduction came while watching the preview trailers on some other movie DVD I was watching.The lack of promotion and invisibility, on my radar at least, seemed ominous.

Without a doubt, Sucker Punch lives up to Snyder’s knack for stunning visuals. I would have to categorize it as a sepia toned, steampunk extravaganza, permeated with leather, lace and fishnets. But with all the flash and glitz, does the movie hold up as a whole?

A promising beginning shows a little girl bravely trying to fend of her father from both herself and her little sister after the passing of her mother. Her sister is killed by the father but circumstantial evidence points to herself and she is ceremoniously incarcerated in an all girl mental institution under the psychiatric guidance of Dr. Vera Gorski  (Carla Gugino who also played in Silk Spectre in Watchmen).

It’s a this point that the movie begins the first of many transformations to alternate universes and dreamlike backdrops. The girl finds herself in oddly similar place to her actual surroundings, a similar yet different institution, where the characters roles have changed slightly.

The girl, now called Babydoll (Emily Browning), then has a dream in which wise man (Scott Glenn) sets her out a quest in order for her to escape and one for which she will need the help of  some of her fellow inmates. Without knowing the exact reasons, she is told to acquire a definitive set of objects that include a map, a knife, fire, a key and yet another unknown mysterious fifth object.

With some reluctance she recruits a quartet of accomplices; Sweetpea (Abbie Cornish), Blondie (Vanessa Hudgens), Amber (Jamie Chung), and Rocket (Jena Malone). Together they manage to get the required implements, but in order to do so they rely on Babydoll putting on performances to distract their guardians.

These performances, which we the movie audience never get to see,  put the audience in a trance like state.  It’s during these performances where the movie viewers are once again subjected to alternate universes where we find our girls battling evil forces and in which their objective is to acquire virtualized forms the aforementioned objects they are trying to get in the ‘real’ world. These worlds are comprised of gigantic robo demon samurais, Nazis, castles besieged with Lord of the Ring orc facsimiles, and metallic robot infested sky trains and play out like surreal music videos, infused with adapted music from the Eurythmics, Jefferson Airplane, the Beatles and various grunge and hip hop numbers.

The problem with the movie is that it suffers from too many layers and tries to be too clever delivering a muddled narrative instead of just a good story. The heart string pulls all seem contrived and we don’t feel the empathy we should have for the girls, some of which are merely cardboard eye candy instead of fleshed out characters (although the do have the flesh needed for the candy piece).

On the positive side it is a stylistic masterpiece, with enough CGI and special effect to make Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow look like bush league. But as we all know visuals alone cannot make a movie. In this case it’ll feel more like watching a two hour music video than a movie.

Is it good enough? I don’t know. If enhanced visual are not enough to hide the fact you’re watching a sub par movie you may find yourself to the titular sucker. If the visuals are good enough for you, you may want to check the handful of related animation shorts that are extra features on the DVD.

Movie Reviews 209 – Bachelor Party in the Bungalow of the Damned (2008)

February 15, 2015

Midnight Horror - Predator CollectionBeen I while since I plunked in one of those cheap DVD quad packs of Horror movies, so I decided I would consume The Midnight Horror Collection: Blood Predators which I pick up not too long ago for a measly $2.50. Can’t go wrong for 75 cents a movie, right?

 

Bachelor_Party_in_the_Bungalow_of_the_DamnedI started off Bachelor Party in the Bungalow of the Damned, and honestly it was this particular title that was the deciding factor to my shelling out $2.50 in the first place. Read that title again. Kinda says it all if you ask me, but I’ll humor my humble reader with a review none the less.

A recently engaged man’s buddies concoct a story about renting a bungalow for a fishing retreat as a excuse for his bachelor party.  Hardly fooling the fiancee, all she want to make sure is that he and the boys don’t go overboard. Unfortunately, the stripper triplet of girls that one of the buddies hires as entertainment, Snowy, Emerald and Vermillion, happen to be vampires and their idea of entertainent includes munching on the boys. Things go from bad to worse when the fiance decides to drop in at the retreat.

I knew I’d be in for a ride, and had no expectations at all, but while it really is a bad movie, it’s almost one of those “So bad, it’s good” movies. Almost.

The dialogue is mostly lame but at least there are attempts at humour and curves (besides those on the women) thrown in. Being a Brain Damage Films release, there are the requisite boob shots but this is a bachelor movie after all, so you kind of expect that anyhow. A short but surprising cameo by Troma’s Lloyd Kaufman was a nice surprise, but blink and you’ll miss him. Most of the special effects are laughable (not in a good way) but there was makeup job of one of the boys in a facial meltdown state that was decent. Just don’t ask why some of the victims end up melting after being assailed by a vampire while others (as expected) and just turn into vampires.

After watching  I can’t help but  wonder whatever happened to director, writer, producer, editor and composer Brian Thompson, the near one-man show who gave us this gem. Surprisingly, he did not cast himself as one of the stars, which is odd for a first time ‘do-everything’ film maker. According to IMDB he hasn’t done anything since. I just wonder if that’s a good thing or bad.

Watch for reviews of The Vampire Conspiracy, Fist of the Vampire and Curse of the Wolf , the other gems in this quad pack, coming soon.


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