Flying Guillotine Part II (1978)

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I’ve recently started getting into old kung fu movies again. I loved them as a kid, but then grew out of the genre for a while. But boutique Blu-ray labels such as Arrow Video and 88 Films have been releasing some really terrific sets of all the Shaw Brothers films and I am here for it. I reviewed Flying Guillotine II (also known as Palace Carnage) over at Cinema Sentries. You can read it here if you like.

Movie Review: Hardcore (1979)

Hardcore (1979) stars George C. Scott as Jake VanDorn a conservative, Calvinist, businessman from Grand Rapids, Michigan. When his teenage daughter goes missing while on a trip to California he hires a sleazy private detective (Peter Doyle) to find her. The detective turns up a short pornographic reel with the daughter in it, but when he is unable to locate her Jake flies to Los Angeles to do the job himself. Once there he journeys through the seedy underbelly of the city talking to strippers, prostitutes, and porno hustlers.

It covers similar territory as the Martin Scorsese-directed Taxi Driver (1976) which Schrader also wrote. Except in that film, Travis Bickle lived in the dark spaces and seemed to thrive there. Jake VanDorn is from the midwest. He is a moral man. A good churchgoer. He is unmoved by all the sex and unseemliness. He is propositioned several times throughout the movie but only offers back a scoff. As if sex doesn’t interest him. His disgust and anger come out only when dealing with his daughter – while watching her perform sex acts on camera or dealing with someone who put her in that position.

Schrader himself was from Grand Rapids and was raised as a Calvinist. He’s on record saying that the Jake VanDorn character was modeled after his father and it is hard not to see the daughter as a symbol for himself. He did leave Grand Rapids for Los Angeles after all to make a living making movies, something his father no doubt would have abhorred. Yet it is interesting to see how the film is from the father’s perspective. We rarely see the daughter at all, nor do we get her side of the story. Make of that what you will.

Jake wanders around the seedier sections of Los Angeles. He walks into porno shops asking the clerk if he’s seen his daughter. He wanders into makeshift brothels where one can wrestle nude with a pretty young woman and negotiate with her for anything else he wants. He pays these women but all he wants is answers. He doesn’t get very many. While pornography has become essentially legalized, this world is still full of secrets, it lives by a code and Jake is clearly not part of it.

He changes tactics. He puts a classified ad in a local newspaper stating that he is a porno producer looking for male studs. He’s hoping to find the young man who was in that porno clip with his daughter. He dons a cheap wig, a cheaper mustache, and clothes that make him look like a narc with no clue as to how to blend in.

He finds the guy but only plunges deeper into this world which includes underage prostitution and snuff films. In parts, it reminded me of several Brian DePalma films. Movies like Dressed to Kill and Body Double also delve into these unseemly sides of a city, but DePalma fetishized them whereas here Schrader looks at them with a detachment. Jake digs deep into this world that he only ever feared existed but he is not part of it. He is a watcher.

George C. Scott is a fascinating choice for Jake. He’s such a square. I mean I don’t know what the actor was like in real life, but his characters are often very straight-laced, or at least unsentimental. While diving into the underside of Los Angeles and San Francisco, he walks through it as if a robot, almost emotionless. He does break down a few times, but each time it is only due to his feelings for his daughter. He meets a young hustler who says she started hooking up when she was very young. Jake is happy to take care of her while she’s helping him find his daughter, but unlike Travis Bickle, he never seems all that bothered that she’s been abused her entire life. It is almost like this is a completely different world to him, to his world back in Grand Rapids, and he’d just assume it doesn’t exist once he gets his daughter out of it.

Schrader is a director whose work I’ve almost always enjoyed. This was the second film he ever directed and the sixth film that he had written. Hardcore isn’t his best work, but it is an interesting film, and it makes for a very interesting companion piece to Taxi Driver.

Hiroshima Mon Amour (1959)

As I mentioned in a previous post I have been writing Blu-ray reviews for my friend’s site called Cinema Sentries. I’ve decided that I am going to start posting those reviews here. I won’t be pasting the actual reviews here as I want to give Cinema Sentries all the traffic it deserves.

First up is my review of the Criterion Collection’s excellent release of the fantastic French film Hiroshima Mon Amour.

I know this is all new and possibly weird for my site. I’ve spent ten years posting nothing but bootlegs and suddenly it is all movie reviews, and pop culture musings. I apologize if that is annoying. I really do plan on posting more bootlegs in some capacity in the near future.

Out of curiosity though, what do you all think of me suddenly talking about movies and such like?

Movie Review: The Simpsons Movie

the simpsons movie

The local paper’s review of the Simpsons Movie stated that it was just like the show, only longer. After reading it I said to my wife, “I hope it is like the show during the early seasons, and not so much like the last few years.”

It is pretty obvious I am a fan of the show. I talk about it all the time, I quote it regularly, I’ve pretty much based my life philosophy around Homer Simpson, and I practically reviewed the entire 18th season (sorry that review is no longer available, Mat).

When the Simpsons are good, there is nothing better on television, and even when they are bad they are good for a few laughs. Unfortunately, since about season 8 they have been steadily moving towards the latter end of that statement. The show has moved from a cutting-edge satire with an underlying heart that made it not only incredibly hilarious but a rock-solid piece of storytelling. These days it hangs on by throwing a million gags out at once.

Sometimes those gags are brilliant, but all too often they make me laugh and then immediately forget them. And the show really lacks the heart it used to have. There is still a lot of cheap sentiment thrown in, but the storylines are so off the wall and jagged, that the sentiment falls flat.

Unfortunately, the movie is more like the last few seasons than the first few. Oh, I laughed and laughed heartily many a time, but nothing has really stayed with me. I didn’t walk out of the theatre repeating my favorite jokes, and now two days later, there is hardly anything memorable about it at all.

That isn’t to say I didn’t enjoy it. I laughed a lot and it was fun to see my favorite four-fingered cartoon characters on the big screen, it’s just that it could have been so much more. On television, every season I hope that the Simpsons will turn it around and become brilliant again. Every season I am ultimately disappointed. But I keep coming back. I keep watching.

Even though I knew the movie wouldn’t be as brilliant as it could be I kept hoping that they would bring in old writers and they would come up with something remarkable. Like the longer deadlines and the bigger budgets would somehow improve the quality.

I will say it looked beautiful. They say they used traditional animation for most of it but used some CGI for the backgrounds. Whatever they did the Simpsons looked better than they ever have before, without looking too improved or big-budgeted (like in the Halloween special, “Homer³.”)

I was slightly surprised that they didn’t go overboard with the freedom that being away from television censors allows. There were a couple of bigger curse words and a funny if inappropriate moment where Bart shows more than his famous naked tooshie. But they could have done much more yet somehow showed some surprising restraint in that front.

Lots of main characters were left out, and while I can’t blame them for not trying to throw every single character in for a one-liner, I still wish Moe and Principal Skinner had more of a presence. Using Arnold Schwarzenegger as President may be a better gag, but I think it would have been more fitting to have used Rainier Wolfcastle for the part (as he’s the Simpsons parody of Arnold anyway.)

I could go on. There are lots of things to quibble with, but mostly they are beside the point. The Simpsons are finally on the big screen. For fans this is a big deal, and they do deliver lots of laughs. For those who find themselves loving more recent seasons, this will be a real treat. For those wishing they’d stop signing contracts, you can expect some laughs, but mostly disappointment.

Movie Review: Cinderella (2006)

For as far back as I can remember I have loved horror movies. Growing up in the 80s I can remember begging my mother to let me see the slasher films of Freddie Kreuger, Jason, and Michael Myers. Mostly she said no, but I still managed to catch them on late-night cable TV. Later the voyeuristic, sick pleasures of real death films like Faces of Death became something of an underground scene at my school. In the decades since that time, I have continued in my love for horror and gore.

The slasher film seemed to go out of style sometime in the early 90s but came back in vogue a few years later with Scream and its winking, ironic sensibilities. Now we’ve got Asian horror and its significant lack of naked breasts, but with plenty of extreme violence. This brings us to Cinderella.

I’m not exactly sure why this film is called Cinderella as there is nary a Prince Charming, a mouse, nor a pumpkin carriage to be found, but there is enough dark moodiness to have Cinderella and her stepsisters screaming for mercy.

The story revolves around Hyun-soo and her mother, Yoon-hee, a plastic surgeon. Dear old Dr. Mom performs facelifts for all of Hyun-soo’s friends who are obsessed with ul-jjang (the ideal beauty), but before long things start going horribly wrong. The face-lifted friends begin having weird visions of their faces being clawed off, which leads them to do some pretty nasty stuff to themselves.

Hyun-soo also begins having visions that her face is a horrible wreck, and she hears voices claiming her own face is someone else’s.

The film is loaded with mood. Shadows abound, and unknown dark faces linger just out of focus in the background. Voices whisper strange and haunting things throughout. As an audience, we’re never quite sure what is going on at any time, but we can be pretty sure it’s eerie.

There are a few Asian horror movie clichés, and to be sure you see more than a few long black-haired girls creeping along. In the end, it feels more like a Romantic era melodrama than a horror film, but for what it lacks in originality and gore it makes up for in mood and social commentary.

Yeah, that’s right, I said social commentary. The film has a great deal to say about our perception of beauty and the extremes we will go through to achieve them. Hyun-soo and her friends, who have all undergone some form of cosmetic surgery, are young students. They haven’t really formed concrete personalities but are more than willing to change their appearance surgically to gain some warped sense of beauty.

In one chilling scene two girls begin slicing their faces open with sculpting knives all the while whispering “I’ll make you pretty.” This mantra is repeated throughout the film. All anyone seems to care about is his or her physical beauty, and they are willing to do just about anything to achieve it. Take a quick look at our own magazines and television commercials it’s not hard to see how such a warped perception could easily be believed.

Unfortunately in its attempts to be a horror film, a melodrama, and social commentary, the film falls a little short in all categories. It is stretched just a little too thin to be completely satisfying as any of them, yet it provides enough of each to make it well worth watching.

Movie Review: Slaughter Night (SL8N8)(2006)

The concept of adding critical blurbs to a movie poster, or DVD case is fascinating to me. PR people are able to take heated, loathing and scathing reviews, pluck out one or two words (out of context) and make the worst movie sound like the greatest thing to ever hit the cinemas.

It was with this thought in my mind that I came to Slaughter Night, a movie so glorious that the only blurb they could find for its DVD cover is “A Whole Lot of Gore.” That’s it. Nothing about how amazing the director is, or how the story is new, fresh, or superb.

Gore. A whole lot of gore. I knew I was in for a treat then.

Hoping that maybe it was mainstream cinema that was finding this little Dutch slasher film a touch too nasty, I went to IMBD in search of fan-boy reviews. The summaries there were a little better. No one was raving about it, but the opinion was that the slashing was good and the story above par.

I should have listened to the cover.

Slaughter Night starts out with a bang. We’re treated to a flashback where some unseen psycho-killer has several kids trapped in an old house. Outside we see what must be police officers sneaking up to the house to save the day. But the killer continues on and before the kids can be rescued he slices off their heads and puts them on pikes. Save but one. Not exactly something to watch with mom, but a pretty exciting way to start a horror flick.

Flash forward and we find Kristel (Victoria Koblenko)arguing with her father about dropping out of school to travel the world. Father figures she’s a smart kid and ought to stick it out, but before we can conclude the argument we’re treated to a pretty harrowing accident that made me think this was one of those new, terrible car commercials.

Kristel and her gang travel to Belgium to pick up a few of her father’s things. Seems he was working on a book that involved a local mining operation. He was especially interested in Andries Martiens (Robert Eleveld), the killer from the beginning of the flick. You see back in olden times, psycho-killers were given the opportunity to free themselves by taking on insanely dangerous missions underground. They were to detect explosive gasses in the mines, ignite them, and if they survived the explosion they were free to go. Apparently, Martiens was given such a deal, and it ended poorly. Dead underground, he now supposedly haunts the abandoned mines. At least this is what the mine tour guides like to say to scare the tourists with.

Of course, being a horror movie, the ghost is real, and he’s mad as hell.

Of course, our heroes take a tour underground.

Of course, bad things happen.

Slaughter Night is pretty by the books in terms of plot. From the opening murder, we know that baddie is going to be back. Once the cave comes into view, we know our characters are going down, and most of them will be whacked. In the end, we know the killer will be killed. That’s not even a spoiler for this type of film. In slasher films, the plot is usually irrelevant anyway. It’s the style that counts.

While Slaughter Night tries to give us plenty of style, it mostly falls flat. During the scary scenes, the director chooses to use hand-held cameras that shake and move all over the place. This type of shaky cam seems to be in vogue these days with nearly everyone using it to create “mood.” Sometimes it’s effective as in films like Saving Private Ryan or United 93. Here it just distracts. It is especially annoying because the camera shakes most violently during the death scenes, obscuring most of the gore. And what’s the point of watching a slasher flick if you can’t see all the slashing?

The lighting is also so murky you can hardly see the characters. Yes, it is in a cave so it should be dark. Yes, darkness can often be used to great effect in a horror film. But instead of adding tension and excitement to the film, it only caused me to be confused as to what was going on.

It’s not all bad. There are a couple of interesting murders (one involving partial decapitation by a shovel that’s pretty cool) and there are one or two scenes that made me jump and squirm.

I was happy to see the Dutch venturing into slasher territory. I’d even be excited to see another one, even if this one failed to ignite my fan-boy sensibilities. Gore-hounds and horror fanatics will find some interesting violence in this film, anybody else should stick with the Descent for their scary movie-in-a-cave fix.

Movie Review: The Perfect Crime (el Crimen Ferpecto)

It’s good to be Rafael – he’s got a sweet job as manager of ladies’ wear at YeYos, he is young, healthy, wealthy, and charming. The ladies adore him and the men wish to be him. He takes what he wants from life, and lives to the fullest. All that’s left is a promotion to floor manager at the store, and his life will be perfect. To obtain that promotion he must simply beat Antonio, the men’s clothing manager, in sales for the month — a task made easy by the doting middle-aged woman whom Rafael convinces to buy an expensive fur without even trying.

Yes, life is good for Rafael. That is, until the check for the coat bounces, and he is overlooked for the promotion. In frustration, Rafael yells at the coat woman and is fired by Antonio for it. An argument ensues and Rafael accidentally kills Antonio in a changing room. To make matters worse, the body soon disappears!

Poor Rafael, his life has gone from perfect to rock bottom in a matter of hours. Luckily he has Lourdes on his side. For she is the ugliest – and therefore completely invisible to the sexist Rafael – saleswoman in the store, and she has hidden the body to protect Rafael, for a price. Lourdes wants only the eternal love of Rafael, for her help and secrecy

Having to choose life in prison, or the love of an ugly woman, Rafael wisely chooses love, but may soon regret it. The Perfect Crime is equal parts Weekend At Bernie’s, American Werewolf in London, and War of the Roses, cranked up to 1.5 speed with Spanish accents.

Lourdes is the perfect crazed lover willing to do anything for the attention of the incredibly handsome and sexist Rafael. In a scene that would make Goodfellas proud, she slices and dices the dead Antonio without batting an eye, while Rafael gets deeper and deeper away from the life he has always wanted.

None of the characters are particularly decent, and I didn’t exactly care for their fate, but the story is told with such flair that I never really cared. The pacing is His Girl Friday fast with an eye for the absurd with its often hallucinatory imagery.

Guillermo Toledo and Mónica Cervera are pitch-perfect for the leads, adding a real emotional core to characters who are completely outlandish. Álex de la Iglesia does a nice job handling all the chaotic action with a smirk and flair.

It is an absolute joy to watch, and one of the most purely comical films I’ve seen all year. And yes, I know it is only March, and I haven’t seen that many comedies this year, but still, it’s a hilariously brilliant film.

The Death of Mr. Lazarescu (2005)

the death of mr lazarescu poster

Poor Mr. Lazarescu, his wife has left him, his daughter has moved across the ocean to Canada, and his sister and brother-in-law lecture him about the money he has borrowed. He’s been having massive headaches and throwing up since morning, and the ambulance never seems to come.

And everybody chastises him for the drink.

The Death of Mr. Lazarescu is billed as a comedy, but if it is such then it is so black that I couldn’t see it. Really it is just sad, very sad, possibly the saddest movie I have ever seen.

The movie starts with Lazarescu (Ion Fiscuteanu) calling for an ambulance. We then see him call his sister, who promptly, along with her husband, yells at Lazarescu for drinking too much and asking for the return of the money he has borrowed.

Then he waits and waits for the ambulance. Eventually, he finds his way into the hall, knocking on the door of the neighbors requesting medicine.

He is chastised for the drink.

The neighbors have mercy and nurse him to the couch where he pukes up blood. They call the ambulance again and note its more serious nature. When the nurse, Mioara Avram (Luminita Gheorghiu), arrives she finds Lazarescu in the tub, where he has fallen. She takes his vitals and tries to determine what is wrong with him.

And yells at him for the drink.

They take him to the hospital, where the doctor is extremely rude.

He chastises Lazarescu for the drink. He abuses the hospital staff, Mioara, and Lazarescu mercilessly. There is no bedside manner. Lazarescu is completely belittled for not taking care of himself properly, for the drink, for everything. The diagnosis is that it is liver failure due to the drink and tests are ordered from another hospital.

Lazarescu is abumulanced to hospital number two.

He is chastised for the drink.

The doctors there are much kinder and run a series of tests which result in serious complications for Lazarescu. Because of a bus accident, this hospital is completely full and unable to perform the immediate surgery needed to keep Lazarescu alive.

He is taken to a third hospital.

He is chastised for the drink.

The staff here is worse than the staff at hospital number one. Mioara tries to explain the urgency of the situation, but the doctors want to reexamine Lazarescu and spend most of their time arguing with Mioara. They then refuse to operate because a now near comatose Lazarescu doesn’t understand he needs to sign the release forms.

He is taken to a fourth hospital.

They do not chastise him for the drink and get him ready for surgery.

It is nothing short of heartbreaking.

It is shot in a documentary style. It uses natural light and lots of handheld cameras giving the film a very realistic feel.

Though it is a Romanian film, it asks plenty of questions about the state of healthcare systems around the world. It is a film that physically angers me. When doctors are more concerned about being sued and filing the proper paperwork than about caring for the ill what has gone wrong with the world?

Even the nice doctors and nurses look haggard. Long hours and extra work due to the bus accident leave them all exhausted. I’ve never thought about tired doctors, but it makes sense, they work long, hard hours and should be exhausted by the end of their shift. The healthcare workers also spend their downtime between tests and examinations chatting about personal things as if they weren’t involved in matters of life and death. It is an intimate look into the chaos, madness, and complications of caring for people.

It is a difficult film to watch. The pacing is languid and the subject matter is dark. Despite being a “comedy” there are few if any light-hearted moments. At a 153 minutes it is a large dose to swallow. Yet it is an important look at healthcare, loneliness, growing old, and how we take care of our fellow man. One that shouldn’t be missed.

Movie Review: Around The World In 80 Days (2004)

There are some films that I make no plans to watch, nor have any desire to see. Yet, sometimes, through circumstance, watch them is exactly what I do. Recently, I was invited to dinner at a friend’s house. Another invitee decided to rent this Jackie Chan vehicle. Never to be one to turn down a free movie, I watched.

I am not one of Jackie Chan’s fanboys. The action sequences in his films are generally spectacular, and often hilarious. But his film’s lack of a cohesive narrative, god-awful dialog, and horrid acting turn me off, more than any stunt can save. From time to time, I do manage to catch one of his films, even enough to notice their general degeneration of late. His earlier, non-English films, though containing worse overall production value, had more bang for your buck. His American-made films seem to be bent on adding plot and characterization to the detriment of the action. This might be commendable if the additional plotting was any good. But more often than not, it’s just a glossy version of the same old schlock. Around the World in 80 Days follows this formula.

Waiting thirty minutes into a Jackie Chan film for the first action sequence is an atrocity. When that action sequence is lame, you might as well take up the pooper scooper and walk the dog. The movie followed this pattern. Thirty minutes of mind-numbing story development followed by tame, lame action sequences.

The plot is old and rehashed. Loosely based on the Jules Verne novel of the same name, Chan plays Lau Xing masquerading as Passpartout, servant of snooty inventor Phileas Fogg (Steve Coogan). Through a bet, they impart on a journey around the world in…oh, who cares? Who watches a Jackie Chan film for the plot? And if you don’t know this story by now, stick around and I’m sure they’ll make another TV movie of it shortly.

The film is scattered with high-profile cameos. Most interesting of which is the now California governor, Arnold Schwarzenegger’s turn as a Turkish prince. The others are mostly pointless and unfunny cameos designed to make the audience go “oh that’s Rob Schneider” and miss the fact that he’s amazingly unfunny and his character serves no particular point. The casting of Kathy Bates as the Queen seems most spectacularly ill-placed. Her British accent is appalling. Was it too hard to find a real Brit to play this role? Some of my French friends have better British accents than that.

With the exception of but a few moments, the fight scenes, few that we get, are unspectacular. The joy of Jackie Chan is in his ability to stage acrobatic action sequences while using an odd array of props. Chairs, stools, flags, and culinary devices have all served as weapons in previous pictures, yet here he is mostly intent on using his hands to fight against regular swords and blades. It’s not that the action is terrible per se, but that they pale in comparison with so many of the others he has performed.

There is really nothing to recommend this movie. It is age appropriate enough. There is little to offend the younger sensibilities (besides the acting, plot, and production values)If you have children, I suppose, they might find it silly enough to enjoy. But, with so many other quality films out there appropriate for children, I can’t make myself recommend this one to them either.