2.18.2017

John Wick: Chapter 2 Film Review


2017
Directed by: Chad Stahelski
Category: Action

When the first John Wick came out back in 2014, I was a bit blindsided by how effective it was as a pretty standard, yet highly entertaining action flick. You see,  I just love action films. I'm talking any kind of action film- I don't discriminate. 80's action, 90's action, sci-fi action, low-budget action, big budget.....you name it. I live for this stuff and I can never get enough of it. So when a modern day action film comes out and it's "not" filled with obnoxious handheld/shaky-cam/quick-edit garbage (the standard for modern day action films), well that's something that you tend to notice. At least I do anyway. What's even more impressive is that the film looked incredible. Aside from the fact that they bypassed this whole visual gimmick altogether, they really took their time giving the film an overall slick sheen that you just never see in action films these days. I wouldn't necessarily call it a throwback to action films of the 80's and 90's (and I don't think they were even trying), but when a good 95 percent of modern action films are generally nausea-inducing, John Wick was a breath of fresh air.

John Wick kind of crept up on us and became a sleeper hit, thus thrusting Keanu Reeves back into the big leagues, and more importantly, a possible new franchise. The popularity of this film, and primarily the character of John Wick, begged for a sequel, and if there's anything Hollywood can guarantee, it's that they're predictable, so of course a sequel was inevitable. In fact, I'm sure the machine was already rolling before we even gave it a thought. So here we are, 3 years later, same star, same writer, but this time only one-half of the original directing duo.



After Thursday night's advanced screening of the film, reviews began pouring in all over the internet, unanimously praising it as a bigger, bloodier, more violent, and all-around better film than the first. So it was a bit hard to not go in with some rather high expectations. Plus, it was an action film, so my enthusiasm was nearly tangible going into my sold-out Saturday night screening. The theater was packed, the crowd was pumped, and the avidity was palpable. Let's dig in.

John Wick is brought out of retirement and forced to pay a debt, only to be double-crossed with a large bounty put on his head.

John Wick: Chapter 2 was good, a solid effort and I enjoyed it for what it was, but I didn't love it. I didn't feel that it lived up to the early hype and while entertaining enough, it didn't blow me away the way I had hoped. As a film, it's a very good and solid modern day action film. The stunt-work (the heart of this franchise) was on point, and Keanu once again proves that despite being over 50, can go toe to toe with the younger guys in the industry on a physical level. Chad Stahelski's direction packs a punch both visually and technically, which really isn't something you can say about directors in the current state the genre sits. Right off the top of my head only 2 come to mind, Antoine Fuqua, who consistently impresses me with every new film, and Adam Wingard's work on The Guest back in 2014. In fact, now that we're on the subject, I feel compelled to mention that 2014 is an important year for this genre. Not only did John Wick come out of nowhere to take the reigns as the biggest surprise in that year, but it was also the year that 2 other similar films came and went without nearly the same fanfare as Wick, yet I personally found to be better films overall. That would be The Guest, and Fuqua's The Equilizer, with Equilizer being the better film of the 3 in my humble opinion. I think John Wick blindsided the industry and the general public with it's visceral neon colored punch, which also worked double-duty as a welcome return to form for Keanu, who hadn't had a bonafide hit since the last Matrix film in 2003.

Leaving the theater a bit underwhelmed also left me dismayed. I don't know, as much as I wanted to love it, I kind of felt like it was following the same recipe as the first film in terms of beats. It's not the same story, thankfully, but it tended to follow the same pattern and quite honestly, felt like it was going through the motions from time to time. Yet it's not a bad film, not in the least. It's another solid effort from the same team, and only reaffirms director Chad Stahelski's status as one of the more gifted action directors to emerge in a very long time. Is it better than the first film? No. Is it a good action film? Yes. I just kind of struggled with the fact that while the action was brutal and plentiful, it was slightly numbing and tedious after a while. And then I go back to the verity that here we have a hard R-Rated film in a time when that is practically unheard of because it almost guarantees less money for the studio, so they tend to water down these action films to make them PG-13, the way they do with the frustratingly dull Expendable franchise. I like that about these John Wick films. I like that the team making it do not cater to the studio chiefs by delivering a safe action film, one that would more than likely guarantee a return at the box office. Hell, they even included smoking, which as odd as it sounds, is something you also rarely see in any film or show anymore. And that's why these John Wick films are significant, because whether you enjoy them or not, they don't abide by the studio guidebook, instead choosing to bend the rules a little bit to create something that feels almost retro and encouraging at the same time.



This sequel smartly boasts a few of the key players from the first film like John Leguizamo as his mechanic, Lance Reddick as the Continental's front desk guy, and the oh so charismatic Ian McShane as Winston, the guy in charge. But some of the welcome new additions include Ruby Rose (Orange is the New Black) as a mute assassin, rapper turned actor Common as a loyal bodyguard, and most enjoyably, a reunion of sorts with Laurence Fishburne, his Matrix costar, as Bowery King, chewing up his scene's deliciously. The standout for me personally was Italian actress Claudia Gerini, the victim to Wick's debt/job, who comes off as startlingly familiar, yet I just can't seem to place her. Though her screen time is limited, she leaves a strong and lasting impression, even down to the manner of her death, which comes off a bit unexpected in a good way.

John Wick: Chapter 2 gives us everything we've come to expect from an action film and tries really, really hard to top the first one and give us something we haven't seen before, and only half succeeding. It's a formidable attempt, full of style, substance and machismo, but fails to really offer anything new other than an insane amount of head-shots and long-take choreography, something that's all too rare in these films today. It's not a better film than the first one, but sometimes that's okay. It just needs to be entertaining, and for most people, that's enough.

2.17.2017

Blu-Ray Essentials: Band of the Hand

This is a month late, but just in case you were not already aware, you can finally pick up this obscure 80's classic on Blu Ray courtesy of Mill Creek. Now, this is kind of a big deal because outside of it's one and only VHS release and an OOP DVD here in the U.S., this has never gotten any kind of love in terms of releases. So not only are you getting a significant upgrade, but you'll also get to finally see it in widescreen for the very first time in all of the world's combined history of existence! Other than when it was screened in theaters of course. Unless Amazon is streaming it in its original aspect ratio too? Nevermind. Don't listen to me.

Now, being as it's Mill Creek, don't expect a gorgeous transfer. It's good, and an improvement over the VHS tape, but it won't blow you away either. And sadly, there are zero special features included. It's literally just the film and that's it. BUT, and here's the best part, it's INSANELY cheap. I'm talking that even when you combine shipping, you'll "still" pay less than $10 for this bad boy. I got mine on eBay for $7.88, and that's with shipping included.

So I literally only saw this film for the very first time a few months ago after randomly coming across the VHS at my local thrift shop. It blew my mind. It's an insane ride of pure 80's cheesey goodness and I'm shocked that it doesn't have a much bigger following. It constantly shifted genre's, themes and story's so often that I don't even know how to begin to describe it, other than it's just fucking awesome. It's an action film, a survivalist film, a drama, a thriller, a revenge film, a cops and robbers film and an 80's neon colored tour de force of style. Produced by Michael Mann (Miami Vice, Manhunter, Thief, Heat), Directed by Paul Michael Glaser (The Running Man), and starring a slew of recognizable faces, who were barely up and coming at the time, this is a MUST OWN for your Blu Ray collection, if nothing else, then to be blown away by nostalgia.

If you care to read my review on this, you can check it out HERE.

VHS cover scan courtesy of VHSAchive.blogspot.com

2.16.2017

Director Spotlight: Craig R. Baxley

Photo credit: Mubi.com

Most of you may not know his name, but you'll most certainly know is work. By profession, Craig R. Baxley began his career as a stunt coordinator and second unit director primarily in television, which transitioned into directing gigs on episodes and TV movies, beginning with The A-Team from 1983-1987. It was around this time that his career peaked, starting with being both stunt coordinator and second-unit director on the Arnie classic Predator in '87. From 1987 on he became a full-time director and retiring from stunt coordinator and second unit work altogether. Craig R. Baxley only directed 3 big budget theatrical films in succession between 1988 and 1991, but it's these 3 films that left a huge and lasting impact in the world of Badass Cinema. 

So why is Craig R. Baxley so important? Let's just start with the obvious. In 1988 he directed the ludicrously awesome Action Jackson, followed by the Dolph Lundgren sci-fi/action classic I Come in Peace aka Dark Angel in 1990, and then The Boz biker classic Stone Cold in 1991. Talk about a Triple Threat! Not only is he a competent director, but his background in stunt work clearly gave him a lead over other directors in the same field. With his background, he was able to utilize his experience in incorporating some killer stuntwork in every single one of these 3 films. Sure some of them are silly, like Action Jackson running along side a speeding car and being able to catch up, but that didn't make them any less awesome.

I've always found him to have a deft touch when it came to directing. He doesn't necessarily carry an identifiable style, but does a competent job, especially when it comes to the action and stunt work, and it's in these sequences where Baxley really delivers. It's also where he does in fact leave a specific stamp on the genre. When it comes to the action, he makes sure you can see everything. He was never one of those directors who got too close to the action to where you couldn't make out anything, instead choosing to pull back mostly and let the action speak for itself. Every stunt, every explosion, and every hard-hitting punch lands with such ferocity, mainly due to how he specifically shoots them. One of his trademarks is laying the camera on the ground when someone is falling from a punch, kick or gunshot wound. The camera is placed behind where the head of the victim will eventually fall, giving the fall a much more brutal feel as the camera follows panning down. It's more than likely not something you'd ever notice, but I did, and he uses this technique in all 3 of these films, a technique I have never seen anyone else use.

Action Jackson (1988)

There is so much to love about this film. Essentially it's a sort of throwback to films of the 70's blaxpoitation movement like Superfly, Truck Turner and Shaft. What's surprising is that it works both as a homage to those kinds of films and also as it's own 80's action film, complete with specific music cue's and a down and gritty atmosphere that gives the whole homage vibe some serious credit. But then it's also a badass and very 80's action film that works better than a homage to the 70's films because of it's ability to be gloriously over the top and very much a product of it's time. I had always hoped that this would have ended up a franchise for Carl Weathers. It should have!! If there was ever a film deserving of a franchise, it's this one. It's a crime that never happened.

This is the kind of film that should have been a runaway hit at the box office, yet for reasons beyond my comprehension, was not. I can't explain it, and I've given myself ulcers trying to. It has everything you could ever want in a badass action film and delivers the goods tenfold. And so much of that is attributed to director Baxley, who does an even handed job of shooting both loose freestyle and stylish. It's never too much in either direction, which works just perfectly for the type of film this is.

One of the best things about this film is that it boasts a huge roster of familiar faces from both Predator and Die Hard. If you've seen it, and you love action films, then you know what I'm talking about. You could easily spend half your time picking out these character actors and naming the other films you just saw them in.

Dark Angel aka 
I Come in Peace (1990)

2 years after Action Jackson Baxley teamed up with Dolph Lundgren for this early 90's sci-fi action classic. While not the film as originally intended, what we ultimately did end up getting is quite possibly one of the best examples of this specific genre regardless. Had this been given to any other director, I seriously doubt it would have been nearly as good or as badass.

If there's a film out of these 3 theatrical releases that best shows Baxley's gifts behind the camera as a visualist and his ability to push the envelope in the action and stunts, it's this one. I really cannot recall any other film that had as many explosions as this film did. Much like his previous film only 2 years earlier, this has a very much "of it's time" feel, but to great effect. It looks and feels very 90's, even though it was barely 1990, but that's one of the many things that makes this one so great.

Dolph Lundgren was really hitting his stride by this point, having just appeared in The Punisher and Red Scorpion. But it's really in this film that his acting became stronger, and more importantly, his accent was virtually nonexistent. He had become one of the more popular action stars of his time, and would follow this film up with Showdown in Little Tokyo and Universal Soldier, further cementing his status as an action legend.

Much like Action Jackson, Baxley and his team infuse so much action and stunt work that whether you find the story to be silly, or the characters to be unlikable (that's not the case here, just an example) that there's enough action, explosions, chases, fights and gun battles to keep you entertained if all you're wanting to see is action. All of Baxley's 3 films are great, but this one really stands out for a number of reasons; the insane amount of explosions, Dolph Lundgren!, a killer synth score by Miami Vice theme-song-maker Jan Hammer, a unique concept and even more unique alien in Matthias Hues, and just it's very basic, yet fully engrossing sci-fi elements.

Stone Cold (1991)

One of the things I like about Baxley is that none of his films are the same. Usually directors tend to stick to a genre, formula, or type that they're comfortable with and more often than not, they end up making the same film over and over again. Thankfully, that's not the case with Craig R. Baxley, who offers something totally different with each one of these films, separating them individually in tone, style, theme and sub-genre, and that couldn't be more true than going from a sci-fi/action film to a biker action film.

Baxley has a penchant for bringing out the best in his leads. He did it with Carl Weathers, then with Dolph Lundgren, and continues with Brian Bosworth, in his big screen debut. Sure, he may not be the strongest actor, but he's not bad either. In fact, there are moments in the film, especially in regards to the character, that The Boz displays an almost natural talent. He never did go on to bigger and better things, but he did make an impression in his one and only theatrical film.

I found Baxley's direction to be a bit more loose and freestyle this time around compared to his previous 2 films. And you know, it works well for the material. It's a fast, loud, gritty, sweaty and violent film that rarely ever slows down, inviting you into the biker gang world and culture in a very down and dirty kind of way. While there is plenty of action, it never gets as big as Baxley's previous 2 films, but that's okay, because this is a totally and tonally different picture altogether. That is until the film hits it's final act, and all hell breaks loose in such a glorious way. If you felt that there was any "big" action or stunts missing from the film, it was saved for the ending, which kicks ass.

Rounding out the cast is resident baddies Lance Henriksen, William Forsythe and Gregory Scott Cummins, who all add that very special 90's touch to this already killer biker action film. Much like his other films, this one also stands out for a number of reasons, one being the better than average cast, but most importantly, because the biker film is an all too rare sub-category in the action genre. There just aren't enough of them, and really, the only ones that come to mind in the last 30 years would be this, Harley Davidson & The Marlboro Man (1991) and Beyond the Law (1993).
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I was always bummed that Baxley never directed anymore big budget features. I don't know if that was a personal choice or if he just wasn't getting any offers. If the reason is the latter, then we as an audience and the world of action in general really missed out on some great films in the action genre.

After Stone Cold, he stuck strictly to TV Movie's and TV Series, with the occasional DTV film here and there, with the most odd choice being the Christian themed Left Behind III: World at War. Sadly, I can't say that I've actually seen any of his TV or DTV films, but I do plan to at some point if I can ever find them. The last thing he directed was an episode of Human Target in 2011, though IMDB states he has an upcoming project in the works called The Gingerbread Girl.

2.14.2017

The Mangler Film Review; Tobe Hooper's Nail in the Coffin


1995
Directed by: Tobe Hooper
Category: Horror

I'd always been mildly curious about this one. On the surface, it has a lot going for it. For starters, it's directed by Tobe Hooper, a director I continue to admire simply for his 80's output, yet knowing also that he really hasn't made a good film since that decade. It's also from a story by Stephen King, which was first published in 1978. And finally, it stars Robert Englund. I mean, that's a pretty large trifecta if you ask me. Though I have never heard anyone actually say that they liked this film, I figured with all this talent involved there's got to be something decent about it, right? In the very least, if it ended up being a mess, I was hopeful for a hot mess. About a good 30 minutes in, I knew I was in trouble.

There is so much wrong with The Mangler that I don't even know where to begin. Mind you, I went in very hopeful and optimistic. You see, I tend to end up loving films that others hate, so I was hoping that there would be some kind of redeeming quality for me to ultimately enjoy it, because more often than not, I usually tend to find some aspect that made me love a film that would otherwise prove a waste of time. It's so sad and frustrating to walk away from The Mangler and being completely blown away by how awful it is. While the idea about a horror movie involving a possessed refrigerator and a possessed laundry machine may sound silly, it could still be fun. Don't forget, Christine is a bout a possessed car, and it's amazing. Soooo....you never know. Let's dig in.

The Good:
Tobe Hooper's direction didn't disappoint. Really, this is one of the few things about the film that I actually liked. Hooper has a very specific way of shooting, and it's one of the reasons why I love Invaders From Mars and Lifeforce so much. I was happy to see that with The Mangler, his style hadn't changed a bit. What I did notice though was that he tended to do a lot more camera movements than what I'm used to from him. I'm serious, I can't recall a moment in the film when the camera was not sweeping up and down or side to side - sometimes both in the same motion. The camera is constantly moving, but in a very classy and deliberate way. And you know, I found it refreshing. No handheld camerawork either. Each scene and sequence is a sophisticated blend of old-school technical tricks, lighting and inventive camerawork that gives the film a very Tobe Hooper-esque vibe.

Better than you expect effects work. While the film overall didn't really contain a lot of gore the way I had hoped, the gore that is in here is pretty well done and effective. Maybe had the film been a lot more gory, it would have been passable.

The design of the possessed laundry press machine, The Mangler, is rather impressive. Huge, with a very retro industrial look and very menacing. In fact, the machine is sort of it's own character in the film in more ways than one, especially in the way Hooper shoots it. he really does his best to make it look like an actual monster and marginally succeeds.


That's really where all the praise ends because this film has so many problems and a plethora of questionable decisions that it's hard for my brain to comprehend the fact that a film can look so good, yet be so bad, and not in an enjoyable way either.

The Bad:
The acting is just terrible. Let's begin with the obvious choice, Robert Englund. I love the guy. Who doesn't? In fact, I'm having a blast watching him on the original 80's sci-fi show V: Enemy Visitor as I revisit the entire series. You'd think for a project like this, he'd be a natural fit, but sadly he is not. In the film he plays an older gentlemen by the name of William Gartley. For starters, I'm not really sure why they had to put him in old age makeup. It's very unconvincing and pretty bad when you stare at it for more than a few seconds. If it had to be an older person, why not just hire an older actor? Oh I get it, stunt casting. Englund really hams it up in this too. Sure he does that with the Freddy films, but it was so over the top in this. While that wouldn't necessarily be a bad thing, it's the way he does it that makes it come off as annoying. He seems to go in and out of some sort of accent (I can't even begin to tell you what kind or where he's supposed to come from) throughout, and then his tone shifts so regularly that you'd swear 3 different people were providing the voice work. Sometimes he whispers in that very Robert Englund whisper. Sometimes he's growling with a gravely raspy voice, and sometimes he's speaking like a normal human being, albeit with a weird unspecified accent that comes and goes. It was odd, and very hard to understand why that approach was taken.



Ted Levine did not fair any better. I actually wasn't aware he was in this, here playing the lead cop, until he stepped outside his house in the beginning of the film. It was a pleasant surprise, only to be made sour almost immediately. I don't know, I've seen Levine in plenty of shows and films, and I have never heard him sound so odd before. I know his unique voice is his "thing", but it's the way he speaks and forms words in this that kind of makes no sense. It's hard to understand what he even says half time time, and then the way he says them makes it even worse.

And then there's Daniel Matmor, who plays the brother-in-law to Levine's cop, and ultimately the film's occult expert who ends up figuring out what's really going on with the laundry press machine. He's another good example of what's wrong with this film. He speaks with an accent that comes and goes, but you can't place it. It's obvious he's not  American, but tries to do an American accent, which is not believable. He's also a bit annoying. You can't figure out why he's so involved in the first place, and why he thrusts himself head-on into danger at any moment.

For some reason they decided to cast Jeremy Crutchley in two different roles in this, the mortician and the photographer. Right from the very beginning you'll notice that the photographer is just a young guy under old age makeup. It's such a bizarre decision and one that has no payoff at the end. I kept thinking that the "unmistakable younger guy under heavy old age makeup" thing would end up being some kind of a gag or maybe play into something later, but it doesn't. I have no clue why they used the same actor for another role, or why they just couldn't hire an older actor to play the photographer in the first place. It makes no sense!

Who was the costume designer? One of the most notable aspects to this film, even though it shouldn't be, is that nothing fits right on anyone. It seems wearing large over-sized trench coats was a thing because everyone has them. But it's Ted Levine who takes the cake, who is literally swimming in a jacket that's at least 4 sizes too big. It's a dumb thing to comment on, I know, but it's so distracting also. He hobbles around like he's drunk most of the time (for all I know maybe he was?), and wearing a huge oversized trench coat only makes his appearance look weirder in general.

The music is forgettable. Generally music is used to enhance any scene or sequence, however in this case, it's the complete opposite. I found the music to be poorly matching with the actual film, becoming a bit distracting at how bland, unsavory and uninspiring it ultimately was. You shouldn't even notice the music. It should just be a part of the scene naturally. But in this case, it says a lot when you notice just how awful the music is in a horror film, when really that's the last thing you should notice.

Final Thoughts:
Unfortunately The Mangler is a mess from the get-go. I wish I could say that Hooper's direction saves it to a degree, but it doesn't. While admirable, there's just too much else wrong with this film in general that are way too distracting to allow you to admire Hooper's always reliable visual pizzazz. I can finally understand now why nobody ever mentions this film. It's terrible.

2.12.2017

Documentary Dynamite: Elstree 1976

One of the things I love about Netflix is randomly coming across films or documentaries I never would have heard of otherwise. They've become a platform for filmmakers and documentary filmmakers who pour their hearts and sweat into their passion projects, only to rarely get the chance to see the light of day or find an audience. But in the day of streaming, and most importantly sites like Netflix and Hulu, these little films do thankfully find an audience, which brings us to this gem of a discovery in the documentary genre.

Elstree 1976 tells the story of all those little bit players, some who have gone onto cult status fame, while others still remain as obscure today as they were back in 1976, in the original Star Wars. Here you get to get up close and personal with these character actors and background players who thought they were going in for a random low-budget sci-fi film that most assumed would never even get released, only to go on in the history books as one of the most profitable and most popular films of all time. They share their experiences working on the first Star Wars film as well as their characters enduring legacy, even though at the time they thought anything but.

While the documentary is an absolute Must-Watch, especially for the Star Wars fan, I found it to take a good half hour to get to the good stuff, and that it ran a bit longer than it needed to. Regardless, it's a fun Sunday afternoon watch for the casual film buff, but an even more absorbing and fascinating experience if you're a Star Wars fan.

You can currently find Elstree 1976 on Netflix...

2.11.2017

Cannon Films Failed Spider-Man Film

Back in the 80's during Cannon Films reign as one of the most prolific companies in the business, they were able to secure the rights to one of Marvel's most popular characters, Spider-Man. Back then, that was a lot easier and cheaper to do. Just look at Marvel's early track record with the low-budget incarnations of The Punisher, Captain America and The Fantastic Four, and Spider-Man was soon to follow. Much like their other films, Cannon would get the gears grinding early, before the films would actually ever get made, hoping to drum up enough interest to secure future deals that would ultimately pay for the film before the camera's ever started rolling. They would accomplish this by making mock-up posters, ads, and trailers. So that's what we have here, a mock-up trailer that doesn't show any actual footage (none was filmed), yet does a great job at selling the product anyway, which was their specialty. I think for me what really "sells" it is the use of the go-to guy for voice-over work, Don LaFontaine. He narrated all the trailers back in the 80's to great effect.

What's interesting to note is that with the trade paper ads, they had listed none other than Tobe Hooper as director, which would have been awesome. But the trailer lists Joseph Zito (Invasion USA, Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter), which also would have been great. I'd also heard at one time legendary cult director Albert Pyun was also attached, and who would then follow that up with the Masters of the Universe sequel, of which sets had already been constructed. We all know the story though. After the disasters Superman IV: The Quest for Peace and Masters of the Universe, Cannon pretty much collapsed immediately and all future projects were scrapped. Still, even though we all know that the effects work needed would more than likely have been terrible, the idea of a Cannon produced, Tobe Hooper or Joseph Zito directed Spider-Man flick circa the 1980's just fascinates me.

In any case, we do have this very low-grade quality trailer, so without further ado, I give you Cannon Film's Spider-Man trailer.

2.10.2017

Death Wish V: The Face of Death Review


1994
Directed by: Allan A. Goldstein
Category: Action/Thriller

I'll admit, despite my love for the series as I explored them all for the very first time within this past year, I was a little weary going into this one for a number of reasons. First of all, that cover is just awful. It looks like a Made-for-TV movie. It's also not an entry in the decades long franchise that anyone ever mentions. At least, not in my experience. But I needed to finish the franchise, even if I wasn't particularly all that excited about this one.

Truthfully, it took a good 30 minutes for me to really get into it. Much like the cover art, it has a very Made-for-TV quality about it. Yet it's not a bad looking film. Writer/director Allan A. Goldstein does give the film an overall nice look, despite the film looking limited to an extent. But still, he's an odd choice for something like this, especially when you look at all the previous entries. Nothing in Goldstein's past filmography would lead you to believe he could deliver a solid Death Wish film. Nothing. My guess is Menaham Golan got him cheap. So I was kind of thrown off with that for a bit, but I'm glad I stuck it through because the film only got better and better as it moved along. In fact, simply based on how the film looked and started right off the bat, I was not at all expecting it to go where it ultimately did in terms of the action and violence.

Poor Paul Kersey (Charles Bronson). The guy just cannot catch a break. It doesn't matter where he moves, or how many years have passed since the last catastrophe, he just seems to attract trouble and torment. It's like it's never far behind, always just waiting in the wings for the absolute worst moment to strike, and it always does. Essentially, that's what the Death Wish films feed off of, and it's what makes them the films they are. But seriously, how much can one man take before he loses his mind? Thankfully that hasn't happened yet, and whenever tragedy strikes, Kersey shifts into revenge mode to deliver some vigilante justice, but you'd think that by now he would just stop dating altogether. I mean, every single woman in his life, whether it be a family member or  love interest, dies simply because they are a woman in a Death Wish film. That's just the formula Michael Winner began with in the first film, and carried on into the second, and it's a formula the series has continued even going into this one. Now that I think about it, I can't recall a woman close to him dying in Part 3, but I could be wrong. And the kills. Oh the kills! When they finally do come into play, they're pretty spectacular. I'll just leave it at that.

The cast is pretty solid, but aside from Bronson returning, the only real standout is the casting of Michael Parks as the main villain, who does a formidable job in the role as a slimy, cantankerous businessman who runs his businesses like the mob. Speaking of casting, Bronson was 72 when he made this, which just blows my mind. The guy doesn't look a day over 60 and age has not slowed him down one bit.

So the film itself turned out to be a lot better than I anticipated. It takes a bit to get used to it's particular TV atmosphere, but that doesn't really last long because soon enough, it begins to slowly resemble the kind of film you were looking forward to right from the start. There's really nothing about the story that set's it apart from any of the other previous entries; the woman he loves is killed, so he goes out for revenge. Same ol' story. Though it has a lower body count than most of the other films, it's the way and manner that these sorry sons of bitches are killed that kind of blew me away. There may be less killing, but it's pretty brutal all the same. I also have to give credit to Allan A. Goldstein, the director. When the action kicked in, the film took on a whole new life and it was awesome. Whether it be a chase, shootout, fist fight or execution, the film kind of shifts gears and I kind of wish there was more violence because the film was so much better when there was. I really dig it. It's almost as if the film was directed by 2 different people, and for all I know, maybe the 2nd unit or assistant director's had something to do with that. In either case, you can bet your ass that when it comes to the "revenge" aspect to the film, Death Wish V: The Face of Death does in fact deliver the goods in a big way.

Despite all my praises, because it is indeed a highly enjoyable film and better than I was expecting, it doesn't come off as one of the best in the series. In fact, taking into consideration that they're all pretty great each in their own very specific way, this would easily be the weakest in the series. But rest assured, that doesn't make it a bad film in any way. It's a solid entry in the Death Wish franchise, and taking into account that there was a whole 7 year gap between Parts IV and V, that this is the only 90's film in the franchise, and also that Menaham Golan's 21st Century Film Corp (a poor man's Cannon Films) produced this, the film will surprise you. Yea I know, Cannon wasn't exactly "quality", but they sure did release a lot of classics that despite their cheesy/amateur/low-budget existence, held a deep rooted place in a lot of our hearts. Of course a lot of that is contributed to the fact that they were made in the 80's, which was a wholly different era of style and filmmaking. If there's anything Death Wish V proves, it's that  it has a lot of things stacked against it right from the get-go, yet ultimately prevails despite it's numerous obstacles. It caught me off guard in a good way, and while it might not be the best entry in the franchise, it's vastly superior to a lot of the paint-by-numbers copycats that were prominent in this genre on both the big and little screen,. It's a great film, you just have to give it a chance.

I think one of the biggest surprises for me was that this film was not easy to obtain in a physical format. The VHS and Laserdisc are shockingly pricey. Too pricey in fact for a blind-buy. The bare bones full frame DVD was significantly cheaper, running on average about $8-$10. Still, a bit pricey for me for a full frame presentation. In the U.S. we haven't gotten a Blu ray, and even though Parts 2-4 have, I realize now that it's because those were originally under Cannon, and this one is 21st Century, meaning 2 different companies and I guess MGM was not able to secure the rights for Part V to include in their newly released DVD and Blu ray's. I ultimately rented it from Netflix since I still get their DVD's. But now having finally seen it, I will most definitely buy it on some physical format to hold me over in the hopes that it does get a Blu ray someday. It's a keeper.

2.09.2017

Korean Folk Horror Done Right: The Wailing

Last week I began contributing my reviews to the local entertainment site Ouch My Ego!, with my review for the excellent Korean Folk Horror film The Wailing being my second. Here it is as originally published on Ouch My Ego! on 2/9/2017:

It's an extremely rare thing for a new film to come out and really leave an impression on me. Since seeing this film the other night, I literally have not been able to stop thinking about it, and I verily can't remember the last time that happened. It stays with you, for better or for worse.



I knew nothing about this going in, other than it's a big hit with the "folk horror" community. But in terms of story, I had no clue what to expect. What's interesting to note though is that after I saw it, all of a sudden people were commenting on how much they loved it, or had seen it a while ago, yet I had no idea this even existed until just a few days ago. But you know, that's just another one of the many wonderful surprises about this immensely absorbing Korean Horror film that a good 99% of any horror film from any part of the planet can't deliver.

A series of random murders by seemingly normal people in a small village has the police and public stumped and on edge. There seems to be no cause and no relation from one another, yet they continue. When a local incompetent police officer gets involved on the cases, he unwittingly becomes entangled in the fold without even knowing it, and what he discovers is unlike anything he nor the village has ever encountered before.

The Wailing is one of the most intense, beautiful, brutal and engrossing horror films I've had the pleasure of seeing. I shouldn't be surprised, as a good Korean film tends to have that affect on me. The Man From Nowhere is a great example of that, but still, the horror genre hasn't really left much of an impression on me when it comes to Korea. But this one just kind of came out of nowhere and blew me away. It's also a starkly contrasting film. The juxtaposition of the beautiful images of the gorgeous landscape and scenery against moments of savagery and brutality are jarring, yet that's one of the things that makes this film such a breath of fresh air. It's different, but in a startling beautiful way.

Korean writer/director Hong-jin Na has only 3 films under his belt, starting with 2008's The Chaser, an action/crime/thriller that firmly cemented his status as a solid standout in an overcrowded market. Each of his 3 films have left a strong and lasting impression, and each carries a strong tension filled atmosphere, whether he plays with action, horror or the thriller genre. He's arguably one of the more gifted writer/director's to come out of there in the last 20 years, and each new film only confirms his status as an important, talented and skillful filmmaker in any genre. He's definitely one to keep an eye on and I'm curious to see where he goes from here.

By now I'm sure you've noticed that I haven't revealed much about the actual plot itself, other than the very brief synopsis above. That's because truthfully, it's near impossible to not give too much away and possibly spoil it for you. It really is best to go in cold, not knowing much other than the very basic elements to the story. But trust me, there is so much more to it. It's a highly complex story with layers of information that you will no doubt be simmering on for some time. It's the kind of film you will want to discuss with others immediately afterwards, because no 2 interpretations are alike. I myself have been having regular conversations about it with others ever since I've seen it, and I still can't get enough.


The tone shifts regularly. While it is indeed a dark film right from the beginning, there are moments that are light, where humor, albeit brief, undercuts the razor sharp intensity. It's actually a welcome addition, but these moments are few and far between. The film begins as a thriller, grabbing you right from the get-go, but as it progresses, becomes more and more a horror film. And not just any type of horror film either. It shifts into a very specific and all too rare type known as folk horror and it does it masterfully.



The casting is really impressive. Jun Kunimura plays the character known as "The Japanese Man". He has a very familiar face, so if you've seen enough films as much as I have, you've surely seen him in something. In fact, I just saw him recently in Godzilla: Final Wars, but he's also in the new Shin Godzilla as well. Most, I'm sure, will recognize him as Boss Tanaka in the Kill Bill films. But his performance in this is something quite unique because he never utters a single word for a good 99% of the film. He speaks through his actions, and has to convey emotions and character development simply through his actions and reactions. It's all written on his aged and worn face and really something to see. The little girl Hyo-jin, played by Kwan-hee Kim also makes a rather impressive addition. Her character, and most importantly, her performance, sneaks up on you in a way that you don't expect, and it was surprising and refreshing at the same time. The real standout for me though is the main protagonist of the film, the cop and father to the little girl, played by Do-won Kwak (The Man From Nowhere). It's fascinating to see his progression from bumbling cop to a tormented and vengeful man willing to do anything it takes to do that he feels is right. It's a harrowing journey that we take along with him that is sometimes difficult to endure or understand.



What's interesting to note is that of the 3 production companies behind this, 20th Century Fox is the only one with any history. Ivanhoe Pictures and Side Mirror are virtually new to the field, with this film being the only film Side Mirror has even released. I'm interested to see if this film is any indication as to the future of these companies and what direction they plan to take in terms of quality and genre.



I really can't praise this film enough. It's a film that manages to be both heartbreaking and entertaining, beautiful and brutal, stunning and shocking, all at the same time. It will leave you asking questions when it's all said and done, but it will stay with you, for days on end. That, to me, is the definition of a great film.

The Wailing is currently streaming on Netflix.

2.07.2017

80's Action Attack!: American Ninja 2

My American Ninja 2 Laserdisc

1987
Directed by: Sam Firstenberg
Category: Action

American Ninja 2: The Confrontation is the perfect example of why I love Cannon Films so much. Its like a bunch of grown men got together and began playing army men and ninja's. That's how absurd and ridiculous this film is, and it's fucking amazing.

Somehow I never got to these American Ninja films, even though logically, I should have been all over them. They were films about ninja's, in America, directed by Sam Firstenberg (Ninja III: The Domination, Breakin' 2: Electric Boogaloo), and produced and released by Cannon Films. I mean, it's a no-brainer really. It's like these were tailor made just for me. I grew up on this stuff! Yet, I kind of just bypassed these films altogether somehow. Well, if this film is any indication, I need to rectify that pronto.

I will be honest, I have seen the first one, about a year ago, and it didn't blow me away. It was pretty basic stuff, and didn't really have anything in it that made it stand out. It was entertaining, so I'll give it that, and Dudikoff and James are such a fantastic team, no matter what film they appear in together. But it didn't knock my socks off the way I hoped it would, so I was in no rush to get to this sequel, which I just happen to have on laserdisc, collecting dust on my shelf. It was a random pickup from a local secondhand store that I knew I would eventually get to. And that day finally arrived.

Army Rangers Armstrong (Dudikoff) and Jackson (Steve James) are sent to a Caribbean Island to investigate a series of mysterious disappearances of Marines, only to uncover a plot to turn these missing men into superhuman ninja's.  

I wish you could have seen my face while watching this film. I don't know, there's something very special and magical about the entire thing, which is kind of weird since it seems to be of less quality than the first film. Yet, this film is full of a laundry list of wonderful surprises, which I'll get to in a bit. I felt like a kid again, and I could only imagine everyone involved did too. In fact, it almost feels like a bunch of men got together to play kids again, and it's a blast.



Michael Dudikoff returns to the role that made him famous 2 years earlier. He's been acting since the late 70's, but outside of his turn in Albert Pyun's cult favorite Radioactive Dreams in '85, he really wasn't a household name by this point. That is until the Cannon Films release of American Ninja that same year in 1985 changed all that. He would go one to become one of the most recognizable and busiest Direct-To-Video action stars of the 80's, who would often costar with his good friend Steve James, another busy bit player who would get his big break with this film, but who would never receive the big roles he so richly deserved. I've always considered Steve James to be one of the most underrated badasses to ever work in film, and it's such a shame he never made it big in the way he should have.

This film is so ridiculous, but so terribly entertaining at the same time. It's very much a product of it's time, and time has not been kind to this film, but that's what makes it so enjoyable too. It's cheesy to the highest degree, but it's not on purpose. It's from a time when films were made this way legitimately, without any knowledge of it being silly. And as I watched this film in disbelief, I was constantly struck by how amateur everything looked and felt, especially the fight sequences, which were laughably terrible. I mean, these are some of the worst fights you have ever seen in your life, and these supposed superhuman mutant ninja's are hands-down the worst ninja's who have ever graced the screen. AND IT'S AMAZING!!!


Director Sam Firstenberg really became the go-to guy for low-budget ninja films back in the 80's, and especially for Cannon Films. Beginning with the excellent and highly enjoyable Revenge of the Ninja in 1983, he would go onto do Ninja 3: The Domination (a Bad Movie Night masterpiece) in 1984, American Ninja in '85, Avenging Force in '86 (not a ninja film, I know, but still has a lot of kung fu-ness to it) in '86, this entry in '87 and then going onto American Samurai in '92. Let's not also forget he directed Breakin' 2: Electric Boogaloo for the Cannon cousins in 1984 in the middle of all this ninja craze. While he's never been a stylish director, he's always been able to deliver competent "looking" films, if that makes sense. But surprisingly, I found AJ2 to look and feel extremely rushed. Lots of handheld camerawork, which I loathe, and a lot of inept fight choreography really make this one stand out for reasons that it shouldn't.

Does it sound like I'm complaining? Because I'm not. It's one of the things that make this easily a far superior film compared to the first one in terms of entertainment. Just the story alone is absurd, but the execution takes it so much further than you expect. So much of this film looks and feels like it was made up on the spot, but everyone's having such a grande time doing it, most importantly Steve James, who really delivers the goods in the film's highly enjoyable final act. I won't spoil it for you, but man, I really wish he became a bigger star. He delivers the goods tenfold.



One of the things that surprised me about this, other than it's absurdly fun vibe, is that it's written by Gary Conway, the guy who plays the villain known as The Lion. He was a steady actor in television before this, and somehow decided to write this film and play it's main bad guy. He would also go onto write the sequel American Ninja 3: Blood Hunt in '89. Oh, and he came up with the story to Over The Top too. In a strange twist, he wouldn't do anything else except for writing/directing/starring in something called Woman's Story in 2000 that I can't seem to find any info on before dropping out of sight entirely.

I really can't praise this film enough, or my enjoyment of it. It's the perfect example of why Cannon Films were so good at what they did back in the 80's, and why their legacy continues to hold strong today. It's cheap, fast, sometimes sleazy low-budget fun that always managed to deliver the goods in a way that so few films or studio's were able to. Just look at their track record. Sure there are some duds - which studio or director doesn't have those? - but look at the sheer output they put out, the amount of genuine raw love for the genre and for films in general. Of course they bit off more than they could chew, which would ultimately be their downfall, but man what a crazy fun and wild ride it was.

How to see it:
At this point, it's not hard at all to get your hands on this from any number of sources. It's been relentlessly released and re-released numerous times on VHS, Laserdisc, DVD and now Blu ray. This particular entry is easily available on several compilation DVD packs, or as a solo DVD for just a few bucks. If you want to get an upgrade, Olive Films recently released all 4 films on both DVD and Blu ray, if you're into that format. The picture quality is a big improvement over previous releases, and it's in widescreen with some bonus features like commentary and a "making of". You can find these from virtually any online retailer like eBay, Amazon, Target, Walmart, Best Buy and Deep Discount for around $15-$20 on the low end. Personally, I don't feel it's the kind of film I must have on Blu ray. Seeing a much more cleaner image isn't really all that necessary for this kind of film, or this film in particular. It's not visually impressive, and honestly, the dead format "look" really gives it a bit of extra spice in my humble opinion. All that is to say is that I'm fine with my old Laserdisc. But I do understand that most people like collecting Blu's and upgrading their existing collection. So luckily for them, Olive Films did a decent service to the film and you can get it fairly cheap.