Tuesday, 29 June 2010

Wednesday, 23 June 2010

JAPAN CUTS: Festival of Contemporary Japanese Cinema

2010 JAPAN CUTS Festival of
Contemporary Japanese Cinema, July 1-16

JAPAN CUTS Festival of Contemporary Japanese Cinema (July 1-16) is coming to Japan Society for its fourth consecutive year, with its biggest line-up ever. With 24 titles and 30 screenings, this is the largest showcase of contemporary Japanese film outside Japan, with international and U.S. premieres, special guests (filmmakers Noboru Iguchi, Yoshihiro Nishimura, Tomorowo Taguchi, Toshiaki Toyoda, Hitoshi Yazaki, and Isao Yukisada; and actors Tatsuya Fujiwara and Daichi Watanabe), parties (Festival Launch Party on July 1st, SUSHI TYPHOON! on July 3rd and NIGHT OF THE FILMMAKERS on July 10th) and giveaways.

In addition to independent and big budget feature films from the past year and 8 titles co-presented with the New York Asian Film Festival, the 2010 edition caps the decade with the Best of Unreleased Japanese Films of the 00’s (the "Naughties"), a digest of overlooked films from the past ten years which—for whatever reason—have not been treated to U.S. distribution.

Highlights include Confessions (dir. Tetsuya Nakashima), Sawako Decides (dir. Yuya Ishii), About Her Brother (dir. Yoji Yamada), Blood of Rebirth (dir. Toshiaki Toyoda), Bare Essence of Life: Ultra Miracle Love Story (dir. Satoko Yokohama), Dear Doctor (dir. Miwa Nishikawa), Golden Slumber (dir. Yoshihiro Nakamura), Nightmare Detective II (dir. Shinya Tsukamoto), Parade (dir. Isao Yukisada), and Zero Focus (dir. Isshin Inudo). But really, we believe every single title in this year’s line-up is worth a watch.

Follow the link to see what is screening and when. www.japansociety.org/japancuts

Monday, 21 June 2010

Black Death


Directed by: Christopher Smith
Written by: Dario Poloni
Starring: Sean Bean, Eddie Redmayne, John Lynch & Carice van Houten

This isn't strictly an action film, though it does feature some pretty cool sword fight action, but merits a mention as it's a brilliant, no-holds-barred, darkly Gothic, medieval thriller that I just can't help reviewing.

Ulrich (Bean) leads his motley band of soldiers through a plague ridden England to a remote village which appears to be a safe haven from the disease running rampant through the country. Hearing stories of cannibalism and raising the dead taking place in the village, Ulrich has been charged with bringing back the necromancer accused of these crimes. A deeply religious man himself, Ulrich is determined to free the village of whatever evil grip it has found itself in. Along for the journey, and acting as their guide, is young monk Osmund (Redmayne), who has his own ulterior motives for leaving the monastery. The two, along with the rest of the band, are pushed to the limits of their faith and ultimately their lives are put on the line as what they find at the remote village is beyond anything they could have expected.

Make no doubt about it, this is a dark, violent and depressing film. The film delves into the dark heart of a turbulent time in history and while the relentlessness of the downbeat nature may put some off, Black Death proves itself to be a challenging and rewarding experience that sticks to its dark roots. About as Gothic and gritty as a medieval thriller gets, Smith's film immerses the viewer into the grim world of medieval England. There is no romanticism here about a bygone age but a film that refreshingly and convincingly recreates a dark period in history. While it piles on the gore and grue, courtesy of several set-pieces of sword swinging action, the film essentially deals with Religion, looking at both those who are avid followers of the Lord and those who have rejected him and how both cannot seem to get away from using violence to get their points/beliefs across. Its a murky, morally corrupt path the film walks and it embraces the dark ethos of both sides of the warped coin with gusto, no one able to escape the violence that seems so inherent in whatever they decide to believe. The heart of the film, and a very black heart it is, is Osmund whose personal journey is the backbone of the film. Brilliantly portrayed by Eddie Redmayne, the actor throws himself into the role giving us the only somewhat sympathetic character for us viewers to relate to. Supported by an able cast including the always reliable and underrated Sean Bean (who gets a scene you are not going to forget anytime soon!), the striking Carice van Houten and a simply awesome John Lynch, the cast and crew commit themselves whole hearted to delivering a tough and tense medieval shocker.

Be warned: this is a violent film. Too violent? Perhaps for some but Smith keeps a lot of things suggestive, just showing enough gore to showcase the gruesome nature of the characters actions. He also orchestrates some incredibly tense sequences including the climactic inquisition/crucifixion sequence and a bloody battle seeing the soldiers fend off a group of vicious woodland warriors. Lots of hack and slash action that is tightly choreographed but unfortunately marred somewhat by jittery camerawork. On the downside, Smith does resort a little too much to shaky handheld camerawork that isn't always needed and some may also be put off by the over serious nature of the film, there being no real let up from the doom, gloom and despair the characters must contend with.

However, this (at least to this reviewer) is what makes Black Death work so well: its commitment to delivering a dark journey into the hell hole of the human soul. Despite a little too much shaky camerawork and a couple of clunky scenes of exposition, Black Death is an exceptional piece of medieval horror. Sure it has its pulpy roots but an on form cast and director sticking to the dark nature of the film (right up until the very last frame) make this a refreshingly adult thriller that isn't afraid to paint its characters in shades of grey and never cheapens its story for the sake of spectacle. Not for the squeamish, mind.

Direct Contact


Directed by: Danny Lerner
Screenplay: Les Weldon
Starring: Dolph Lundgren, Gina May, Michael Pare

About as cookie cutter, off the assembly line as low budget action films come, Direct Contact gets to the point quick and delivers satisfyingly staged action at regular intervals. Lundgren is his usually solid self and while this seems more like a contractually obliged film, it's still reassuring to see him churn out a couple of straight forward action films a year. Unlike other stars of his ilk, Seagal and Van Damme, Lundgren seems to have embraced his legacy as an action icon, thus he actually appears in his films (unlike a certain double reliant Seagal) and accepts roles in big budget action movies when they come along (unlike a certain Expendables snubbing Van Damme). Its also good to see the Swedish oak has turned to directing his own action flicks (The Mechanik, Missionary Man) in recent years, meaning he often delivers above par straight-to-DVD action flicks.

Unfortunately this isn't one he has directed but a Nu Image produced, Bulgarian shot cheapie that is neither full on action fun or outright awful. Lundgren plays the typical special forces soldier banged up in some hell hole prison for smuggling weapons and takes a daily beating from inmates and prison guards a like. But he's given the action move plot staple of an offer he can't refuse: rescue some important person who has been kidnapped and freedom and a large deposit in the bank account are assured. Such an offer is put to Lundgren by a shady Michael Pare (another action movie and Nu Image regular) who you know is the bad guy from the second he walks on screen. Which in turns leads to lots of double crossing, Lundgren falling for the pretty girl he is supposed to rescue and the two going on the run dodging excessive amounts of bullets, explosions, hordes of ineptly trained military goons and Pare's incessant need to swear to seem more evil.

Yep as run-of-the-mill as they come but bolstered by large amounts of explosion heavy, squib reliant, vehicle and property damaging action. Its all staged fairly well and the film does let Lundgren cut loose in a seemingly never ending series of hard hitting fights which are pleasantly punchy and take down heavy. The film does unfortunately rely a little too much on stock footage from other Nu Image flicks to pad out some of the action scenes, but hey, this is a cheap and cheerful action flick, so what do you expect. Nothing great but entertaining nonetheless and will do until Lundgren directs his next flick, The Expendables is released and the no doubt inevitable Universal Soldier 4 arrives.


VIPER (aka BAD BLOOD) (1994)

Directed by: Tibor Takacs
Written by: Neil Ruttenburg
Starring: Lorenzo Lamas, Kimberley Kates, John P. Ryan

The other action star with a ponytail, Lorenzo Lamas goes all revenge crazy to help out his screw up brother who is in debt to some nasty dudes who come a collecting in this barmy but surprisingly entertaining and well done low budget actioner. What seems to be a mix of vanity project for Lamas, a Playboy video and a hard hitting action film, Viper doesn't hold back in the violence and skin departments. The flick is nothing new in narrative terms, just a flimsy story to string together some pretty well staged action scenes.

While Viper is certainly geared towards making Lamas look awesome and gives him plenty of opportunity to pose and bed both the beautiful women (nice!), Lamas, despite his ridiculous ponytail and need to be shirtless at regular intervals, is actually one of the better actors in the low budget action arena. The dude has a personality and seems to know how ridiculous the shenanigans his character gets himself into (almost, but not quite, winking at the camera). He has a likable screen presence and hey, if I was an action star I would also make it a contractual obligation for me to bed the two good looking female stars at some point, no matter how contrived it is.

Speaking of which the film has plenty of skin, all shot in soft Playboy style focus. In addition, the action scenes are above average for this type of low budget nonsense. Sure they push the boundaries of believability what with Lamas jumping over an oncoming car all the while shooting at it (which, if truth be told, is awesome!) and a never-ending (and I mean never-ending) supply of suit wearing goons for our hero to gun down come the finale, but the action is tight, the fights well staged and plentiful and the climactic shootout/fight full of gunplay, explosions and stuntmen flying into things. The film also has a rather nasty streak to it, what with kids being shot in the opening five minutes, dudes being tortured with hammers and vices and all kinds of risque bedroom antics from the (rather ridiculous) bad guy. Viper has it all: boobs, blood, and big explosions.

No classic but an entertaining slice of low budget action absurdness, that proves to be one of Lamas' better straight-to-video vehicles and an enjoyable action hoot.


Monday, 7 June 2010

The Tournament


Directed by: Scott Mann
Written by: Gary Young, Jonathon Frank, Nick Rowntree
Starring: Kelly Hu, Robert Carlyle, Ving Rhames, Ian Somerhalder, Sebastian Foucan, Liam Cunningham & Scott Adkins

Full blooded, pumped up, straight laced action doesn’t come more violent, in your face and gloriously over-the-top entertaining than it does in The Tournament. If you are sick of blockbusters that don’t deliver, tired of CGI hokiness and bored of shaky cam, epileptic edited action scenes, then The Tournament may just be what you are looking for. Wild, ultra violent, often breathlessly staged and set-piece heavy, this is an action soaked delight.

Every seven years a group of elite assassins are drafted into a competition to compete against one another for a large cash prize and the title of the world’s top killer. Held in a different city each year and monitored over the town’s CCTV camera system while rich fat cats watch and place bets, the killers use all their skills and resources to slay one another and be the last assassin standing. This year's choice of venue, err, Middlesbrough! Yep, that sprawling metropolis in England. Well, it makes a change from New York or LA and it’s actually Bulgaria doubling for Middlesbrough most of the time. So with its unique setting, slick visuals and blood soaked action, The Tournament takes little time to get going and once it does its assassin vs. assassin a go-go.

This is set-piece heavy action cinema, the pace always on the go as the assassins attempt to eradicate one another over the course of 24 hours. Characters are defined enough for this type of action film, several characters having ulterior motives for competing and Robert Carlyle’s alcoholic priest getting caught up in the action mistakenly meaning there is a little character to go along with all the assassin killing. The cast is fleshed out with a nice mix of character actors and action stars, all embracing the outlandish premise and seemingly having a hoot as the mayhem erupts around them. Kelly Hu, Ving Rhames, Robert Carlyle and Liam Cunningham bring a bit more edge to proceedings while Lost’s Ian Somerhalder is absolutely demented as a blood thirsty, redneck killer. Action ace Scott Adkins also pops up but it’s more of a glorified cameo than a starring role but he does get to take part in one wicked fight scene.

This brings us to the action: glorious, brutally staged action sequences put together by JJ (Undisputed 2) Perry and a host of stunt professionals. Working with a modest budget and mercifully forgoing CGI tricks, the action in The Tournament is back-to-basics stunt and fight work that recalls the glory days of the 80s. Featuring everything from gunplay, to hand-to-hand combat, to vehicular mayhem and even free running, The Tournament pushes its action to the max, delivering momentum and kinetic set-pieces by the bucket load. As mentioned Adkins gets a wickedly choreographed fight in a church facing off against Kelly Hu; there’s an excellent free running sequence courtesy of parkour expert Sebastian Foucon that also works in a speeding police car and lots of gunplay; an insane shootout in a strip club and a barnstorming climactic chase involving a tanker and a double-decker bus. While a couple of scenes are a little rough around the edges, The Tournament’s action sequences are in general thrillingly put together, overcoming what must have been a tight budget and absolutely delivering on the concept of a group of assassins facing off against one another.

Sometimes it’s reassuring, for an action fan at least, to see a film that sticks to its guns and delivers full throttle action without much complication. The Tournament does just this but is also bolstered by a fine cast and some talented filmmakers delivering a slick action ride. It may push the barriers of taste on a few occasions and Adkins is dispatched way too early on but The Tournament is nevertheless a fine piece of action entertainment and a right bloody hoot.

Love Exposure

My new review of Love Exposure at Far East Films (www.fareastfilms.com)


Wednesday, 2 June 2010

Crying Freeman


Directed by: Christophe Gans
Screenplay: Christophe Gans & Thierry Cazals
Starring: Mark Dacascos, Julie Chondra, Rae Dawn Chong, Byron Mann, Masaya Kato, Yoko Shimada, Mako & Tcheky Karyo

Before he made the really rather awesome French period, martial arts, monster movie Brotherhood of the Wolf and the almost equally awesome video game adaptation Silent Hill, French director Christophe Gans made a striking feature length debut with the very underrated, Crying Freeman. Based on the long running Japanese Manga of the same name its style, execution and sometimes graphic ultra violence may not be to everyone’s taste but Gans’ film is a striking and stylish action picture and one of the better attempts to transfer an adult themed comic book to the big screen.

Mark Dacascos gets one of his best big screen roles (he also went on to star in Gans’ Brotherhood of the Wolf) as Yo, the Crying Freeman of the title: an elite assassin for an ancient and shadowy organization who sheds a tear each time he kills. He is seen by an artist Emu (Chondra) conducting his latest kill. Thus she is marked for death by the Freeman but the two find they are lost souls in a violent world and instead of killing her, Yo lets her live and sees a life beyond murder and death. Yo sets in motion a chain of events to free himself from his violent life, destroy the Yakuza families gunning for him and live a new and peaceful life with Emu.

Standard set-up that is livened up by a twisty turny plot that also takes in feuding gangster families, an ancient and almost supernatural society of assassin handlers, corrupt cops and a vicious woman vying for control of the Yakuza. The bad guys are certainly fleshed out for a change getting as much screen time as the hero meaning everyone’s fate is in the hands of the Freeman come the finale. Great characters backed up by an impressive cast who get to strut their stuff and slice there way through a violently rendered comic book world. The dialogue may be a little stilted and clich├ęd ridden, delivered a little too po-faced on occasion, but this is the world of the comic book a world we are no doubt in. Gans skilfully brings Manga to the live action big screen, working with a modest budget and well before the days of CGI. Dacascos shines and has great adversaries in the likes of Masaya Kato and Yoko Shimda as the bloodthirsty Yakuza.

Gans proves a deft hand at the bloody set-pieces as well; Crying Freeman being packed with bullet riddled action sequences. He may overdose on the slo-mo a little too much but the action is often violently realized, skilfully choreographed and adds thrilling momentum to proceedings. Dacascos excels in the action scenes not least in a late third act sword fight but the standout is a gun blast laden set-piece in the Yakuza stronghold where Yo and his fellow assassin infiltrate the compound and surprise the Yakuza in fiery, violent fashion. Gans orchestrates the mayhem with aplomb, living up to the ultra violent nature of the Manga.

Now Crying Freeman may be an acquired taste for some. Not just a straight action film but as much about style, emotion and backstabbing characters, the film tells its story in a unique way. Gans was obviously trying out his style and technique (something which he has perfected with Brotherhood of the Wolf and Silent Hill) but Crying Freeman is still an impressive attempt at turning Manga to live action. It may have dated a little since its mid 90s release, Tcheky Karyo is for some reason bizarrely dubbed and it perhaps takes itself a little too seriously on occasion, yet there is no doubt this is a visually striking, brutally rendered action film that pulls no punches.

Tuesday, 1 June 2010