Thursday, 23 June 2011
DETECTIVE DEE AND THE MYSTERY OF THE PHANTOM FLAME (2010)
Directed by: Tsui Hark
Screenplay: Jialu Zhang, Kuo-fu Chen
Starring: Andy Lau, Li Bingbing, Carina Lau, Chao Deng, Tony Leung Kai Fai
Legendary Hong Kong director Tsui Hark (Seven Swords, Time & Tide and the quite awesome, The Blade) delivers a big, stunning looking blockbuster that harks back to the golden Hong Kong fantasy days of A Chinese Ghost Story and Swordsman 2. Combining his unique visual skills with his knack for impressive production and action design, his new film Detective Dee is one part fantasy, one part detective mystery and one part wuxia action. Big, adventurous and with some thrilling set-pieces Detective Dee can't always keep up with its uniqueness but is still an inventive and often wildly entertaining ride.
Hong Kong superstar Andy Lau is the titular Detective Dee, a master investigator who has spent the last 8 years or so in exile for treason. He dared to disagree with the ruling hand of Empress Wu (Carina Lau), the first women ruler of the empire, so was whisked off to prison. But days before her inauguration into power, some of Wu's most important people are being murdered: bizarrely bursting into flames. Fearing her safety and believing Dee is the only man who can solve the puzzle of the mysterious spontaneous combustion sweeping the land, she sets him free. So, with a couple of bad ass fighters in tow, Dee sets out to solve the crime coming up against all manner of strange goings on: including folks who can transform their appearance through acupuncture, a band of deadly assassins who keep trying to kill him, a gigantic statue he must stop from falling onto the Empress' palace and, er, a talking deer.
Many having been comparing Detective Dee to Guy Ritchie's recent reinterpretation of Sherlock Holmes and I suppose that is a good starting point. Both deal with master detectives, in a period setting, having to solve a bizarre mystery while constantly having to fight off ever increasing enemies and deal with more and more strangeness as the mystery develops. Both films are slick in production value and packed with spectacle but Hark's film owes just as much to fantasy and wuxia films from the 80s and early 90s. While the film is a mystery at heart there is still plenty of out-there stylings and high flying action. Visually the film is a delight existing in a sort of comic book styled bygone dynasty and with magic and oddness at play, Hark gets to flex his creative muscles: people bursting into flames, an opponent who can split into three and fight many combatants at once and that talking deer, which commands a whole herd of deer that Detective Dee has to fight at one highly inventive point. No really, Andy Lau lays the smackdown on some marauding deer. Awesome.
Over seeing (in part) all the smackdown in none other than Sammo Hung, here helping to craft several ingenious flight-of-fancy set-pieces that are inventive, OTT and feature some high impact martial arts. There is that great set-piece featuring the dude who can split in three and an impressive finale where Dee takes on the bad guys inside the massive statue while attempting to stop it from falling. There is lots of flying through the air and characters engaging in physics bending fighting so this is not so much the one-on-one type of intricate combat but for fans of wuxia, which only Hong Kong can do so well, then this is a treat.
On the downside, the pace doesn't always keep up with the imaginative goings on meaning the film does tend to drag on occasion with a little too much exposition being thrown about. Still, Hark keeps a handle on everything and good to see the director pushing his creative boundaries once again. A quality Hong Kong fantasy blockbuster that could see the title character having many more adventures. Which wouldn't be a bad thing.
BATS: HUMAN HARVEST (2007)
Directed by: Jaimie Dixon
Written by: Brett Merryman & Chris Denk
Starring: David Chokachi, Michael Jace, Pollyanna McIntosh
A name in only sequel to the 1999 Lou Diamond Phillips starring original Bats (remember that?), Human Harvest (awesome title) is chock full of cliche, annoying douche bag characters, insane plot contrivances, rickety CGI, giant carnivorous bats and was obviously shot on the cheap (very cheap) somewhere in Eastern Europe: so, of course, I loved it. I love creature features whether it's rampaging sharks, killer bugs or even, well, man eating bats and the lower of budget the better. Bats: Human Harvest has it all: those murderous bats, a former Baywatch star, shonky accents and CGI and a team of inept military dudes thrust deep into a spooky forest (to capture/rescue some important doctor type: who's been messing with the aforementioned bats) meaning there is plenty of opportunity for people to get picked off and engage in automatic fire with hordes of killer bats. Sweet.
The original Bats was a fun fright flick that benefited from the modest budget, the sexy Dina Meyer and Louis Morneau's sparky direction (he also made the quite awesome Retroactive). Its sequel has none of these things but any low budget genre flick that features a platoon of soldiers (Delta Force in this case, as the characters like to remind us all the freaking time) fighting a swarm of animals gone amok gets this doesn't-have-very-high-film-viewing-standards reviewer's vote. Yup, the CGI is distinctly ropey (but its a low budget sequel: that comes as standard), including some CGI helicopters (awesome!), meaning the bats are never really terrifying and the attacks mainly consist of the actors just flapping their arms around wildly or firing randomly into the sky. But there is a bit of gore to spice things up and lots of low rent shoot-outs (and a few surprising kabooms) to keep the flying rodent action ticking along nicely.
There are no likeable characters, everyone seemingly trying to out-douche one another (what is it with modern screenwriting where the people we are supposed to root for are bigger dickheads than the actual villains?) but then most of them get what they deserve and the whole forest setting makes for a cheap but visually appealing setting. So, for a flick about flesh devouring bats causing chaos in some random forest that is a shoe-string sequel to a Lou Diamond Phillips vehicle from the late nineties, Bats: Human Harvest provides of a decent amount of army-guys-fighting-off-rampaging-animals fun.
Wednesday, 15 June 2011
THE IRON TRIANGLE (1989)
Directed by: Eric Weston
Written by: John A. Bushelman, Larry Hilbrand, Eric Weston
Starring: Beau Bridges, Hain S. Ngor, Liem Whatley, Johnny Hallyday
Corking Vietnam War film, The Iron Triangle may not be Full Metal Jacket or Platoon but is still a hard hitting war flick with some impressive combat scenes. Featuring some awesome jungle location work the flick sees tough and hard headed soldier Captain Keene (Bridges) seeing combat in the area known as 'The Iron Triangle': the bloodiest and most perilous area in the war zone. Pushing forward into this zone, Keene and his men come up against Colonel Tuong (Ngor) and his army and after much combat and loss of life, Keene finds himself captured. Beaten, tortured and humiliated his life looks to be over until a sympathetic Vietcong soldier, Ho (Whatley), shows mercy on him and they flee into the jungle hunted by Ho's comrades.
So a ropey bond of trust is formed as the two rely on each other and soon learn that they aren't that different: just fighting for different countries. Based on the personal diary of a Vietcong soldier, The Iron Triangle may be a little too polished and succumb to movie trappings (the need for more action, stirring music to evoke emotion) to be a truly realistic portrayal of the soldier's experiences but it sure gives it a good go and doesn't shy away from the violent atrocities. Why it never lingers on the violence and the gore is tame by today’s standards, The Iron Triangle still contains some graphic war violence. The film is often hard hitting, showing how a soldier's life was cruelly expendable and it doesn't shy away from showing the horror of war combat.
The big fire-fight and battle scenes are staged with aplomb with lots of explosive firepower and napalm destroying action and it is pretty much non-stop. The characters barely have time to rest between exchanges of firepower and the film achieves a certain relentlessness which in turn creates some impressive tension and come the finale battle, reaches quite a stirring climax. Bridges and Whatley infuse their characters with humanity and we get to see the war from both their sides. Despite the ordeal they share they never truly change, despite coming to respect one another, still believing they are fighting for the right side.
Not as trashy as a lot of Italian made war films but not quite reaching the gravitas of say Apocalypse Now, The Iron Triangle falls somewhere in between: providing mucho grand scale 80s action goodness while having something to say at the same time. Just the right side of exploitation, The Iron Triangle is well worth seeking out, especially if you are into war/combat movies.
Sunday, 12 June 2011
Friday, 10 June 2011
JONAH HEX (2010)
Directed by: Jimmy Hayward
Starring: Josh Brolin, John Malkovich, Megan Fox, Michael Fassbender
"War and me took to each other real well."
Ok, I'm just gonna go right ahead and say it: I enjoyed Jonah Hex. For all its faults, watered down thrills and the fact it has been cut down to barely just an hour and ten minutes of running time, Jonah Hex is stylish comic book fun. Lambasted, torn apart and spit on (not to mention appearing in cinemas for barely any longer than its actual running time) by the fan boy community and critical establishment, Jonah Hex nary had a chance at success. Not to mention a studio that seemed to get cold feet at this being a violent and fairly adult comic book movie thus cutting the running time down to nothing and toning down all the violence and black magic mumbo jumbo. But despite all that was stacked against it, Jimmy Hayward's (who seems to be copping a lot of flack for the film's failures) flick is actually a western/horror/comic book hoot.
Maybe it's just that my expectations were low due to the critical drubbing or I'm just overly sympathetic to films that take a pounding (as I seem to be enjoying films that everyone else hates more and more!) but Jonah Hex gave me a groovy comic book fix while upping the western trappings to entertaining effect. At it's heart, and perhaps due in part to much of the film ending up on the cutting room floor, the flick is just a simple revenge story of Hex (Brolin) going after the killers of his family (Malkovich, Fassbender) who also left him disfigured, dying and with a nifty side effect of being able to talk to the dead. Throw in a few supernatural elements, some quality action and Megan Fox (who's role also seems to have got the trim) in a corset and Jonah Hex is, well, pretty decent.
Yes, the flick is all kinds of ludicrous (but it is a comic book western after all), lacks logic and even coherency on occasion and due to all the shorn footage a great supporting cast is completely wasted: Aiden Quinn has all of two scenes, likewise Wes Bentley, Will Arnett is barely used and the great Michael Shannon has had his part cut back so much he now has a blink-and-you'll-miss-him appearance, complete with one line of dialogue (but bizarrely still gets a main credit recognition!). Malkovich also phones it in but Fassbender is ace as a nutty, tattooed Irishmen hell bent on killing and blowing shit up: but just isn't in it enough. While the mix of western and supernatural doesn't always work, it's a neat concept meaning there a few cool beasties in there (the snakeman!) and Hex even has a scrap with a reanimated corpse (a cool cameo from Jeffrey Dean Morgan). Plus, we get horses with machine guns strapped to their sides, Hex puking up a crow (!) and a barnstorming set-piece involving the hijack and destruction of a train which shows Hayward can handle the action as well as all the weirdness.
Nicely shot and with a searing soundtrack (courtesy in part by Mastadon), Jonah Hex rockets along and with all its over-the-topness and bonkers action, often feels like a long lost blockbuster from the 1990s. Maybe I'm singing its praises too much (as by the end it does kinda fumble into a chaotic mess) but with so much hate flung at this flick, I was surprised at how enjoyable it actually was. It may bare only a passing resemblance to the source material (and for fans of that, it's understandable why they may not like the flick) but Jonah Hex is an enjoyable ride with some tight action, a great performance from Brolin and, refreshingly, a sense of humour (and that is something to be thankful for).
Hell (and I know I'm in the minority here), I liked it.
TIME LAPSE (2001)
Directed by: David Worth
Written by: David Keith Miller & Karen Kelly
Starring: William McNamara, Dina Meyer, Henry Rollins & Roy Scheider
Time Lapse had the potential to be a fun and action packed straight-to-DVD actioner but instead is just a slog through, well, a whole lot of nothing. Actually, there was something: a high speed chase involving a helicopter chasing an SUV down the side of a mountain. Oh, and the explosive finale which features a tanker flipping on its side, then exploding taking out the bridge it is on while the heroes out-run the explosion in their car. But wait, these scenes are actually stolen stock footage from other better films: the helicopter bit from the stellar Gene Hackman flick Narrow Margin (a scene that has been cribbed and used in dozens of cheapie stock footage action flicks) and the tanker bit from the awesome The Long Kiss Goodnight. Two films you should definitely watch instead of Time Lapse.
This should have been fun. I mean, we’ve got the uber sexy Dina Meyer (Starship Troopers), the always awesome Roy Scheider (hamming it up) and director David Worth has delivered some cool low budget action flicks in the past: Chain of Command with Michael Dudikoff, True Vengeance with Daniel Bernhardt and not to mention he co-directed the original, and still ace, Kickboxer. Unfortunately, Time Lapse is just a dreary drag about an anti-terrorist agent losing his memory and going on the run to find who he is and stop some nefarious plan to blow something up with a nuclear device. The cast are wasted; scenes drag with loooong pauses between characters talking which robs the film of any pace or tension. The action is low rent, even by low rent standards, resorting to the above mentioned use of stoke footage action scenes which is just, quite frankly, annoying.
Rolled off the Cinetel Films conveyor belt (who specialise in low budget action and horror flicks, especially those using stock footage) Time Lapse isn’t one of their more fun efforts which is surprising considering it's got Dina Meyer, Roy Schieder, the creepy guy from Copycat and even freaking Henry Rollins in it. Though seeing the hero jump from a high rise building while another guy shoots at him, and misses, land on solid concrete, do a forward roll and survive, did raise a smile.