Johnnie To’s Three Review

July 9, 2016

Before sliding off into a gushy review of Three, let’s take a peek at the Johnnie To’s last trip to a hospital in his film Help!!!. Remember that film? Most don’t.

The popularity of Help!!! seems to surround scene in the trailer where the cast reveals their bras. Kozo of described the film as “better than a Wong Jing film”, and accurately states that it’s not saying much.

But we’re here to talk about Three. Although early reviews described the film as an action film, it’s more of a thrilling crime melodrama set in a hospital. We are introduced to Dr. Tong Qian (Vicki Zhao), a neuro-surgeon at a hospital. Her record doesn’t seem to be great as of late, as she deals with patients who are either paralyzed or have entered a vegetative state. Qian is lead to a more difficult situation when a cocky criminal Zhang Lixin (an enjoyably hammy Wallace Chung) is brought to the hospital with a bullet logged in his head. He’s accompanied by Johnnie To regular Louis Koo as Inspector Chen, who is interrogating Lixin. Chung’s character has other plans in the hospital, as he is organizing crimes with his fellow gangsters who are robbing banks and even threatening to blow up the hospital (shades of Hard Boiled?). Sounds good, right?


How can you hate this face?

The film is a bit scattershot. The main plot had a lot of twists and turns which do not seem to affect the main characters enough and some side stories seem to remain more fresh in my mind. Lo Hoi-Pang steals the show as enthusiastic patient who runs around stealing keys. Three screenwriters, with only one To regular, may make a weird stew for a film, but I don’t think Hong Kong cinema fans will mind. Let’s compare this film to another enjoyable but very different flick from Hong Kong, SPL2: A Time for Consequences. Narratively, they are all over the place, which could leave into a confusing watch. However, both films deliver what a genre promises. For the most part, SPL2 provides the action and enough narrative in between to tie it together without being dull. Three is genuinely exciting and thrilling. It contains the strong acting, stylised cinematography, humor (Lam Suet gets stabbed in his arse (shades of…Eastern Condors?)), and troubled heroes and devious gangsters that you would expect in a Johnnie To production. Is it as structured as well as Exiled or the Election films? Not really, but it does deliver the goods despite the narrative confusion and in the hands of less talented director, cinematographer and cast this would crumble. Johnnie To is a director who has a strong enough team that he can overcome the occasionally dodgy script if he at least seems comfortable with the material. I like to assume this is why films like Three work and will find an audience, while Help!!! will only remain on a To completist’s shelf

If you are still reading this far into the review, I’ll assume you are a enthusiastic To fan, or at least curious enough to enter the fandom. There’s been criticism about the excessive CG at the end of the film, but I’d have to say that it isn’t nearly as glaring as the beer can in Exiled. What does stick out like a sore thumb is a cliffhanger scene where certain cast members are hanging for their lives in front of the dreaded green screen void. It’s entirely unconvincing and makes you miss the days where Hong Kong would have real actors in near death situations at twice the height.

Beyond that, Three is a unique new entry for To, that could easily creep into the secondary favourites lists that also include other non typical To films such as Sparrow, Needing You and Office.


Exterminators of the Year 3000 Review

February 8, 2016

I don’t think I’m blowing too many minds when I repeat information online that this Italian-Spanish co-production is a Mad Max 2 derivative. Thanks to the glut of independent companies releasing cheap films from yesteryear to home video, it’s easy to spot these cinematic wannabes and have a quick laugh. Whether these laughs last the running time of the film is all up to the viewer. Exterminators of the Year 3000‘s director Carnimeo is known more for his spaghetti westerns and sex comedies and he clearly finds himself struggling with a sci-fi action film. It has even less of a unique personality than Enzo G. Castellari’s 1980s attempts. Among the characters here, we have a complete rip-off of Wez from Mad Max 2 named Crazy Bull (played by Fernando Bilbao) and Robert Iannucci as Alien, who resembles Mad Max only in uniform. Alien lacks the character arc of Max and seemingly just drives around as a lone wolf, jumping from being a villain to hero every other scene.

I mean, it’s not hard to spot the similarities. Even in Spain, the film’s poster even says, “Hey audience! It’s like Mad Max!”

Exterminators of the Year 3000 Spanish poster
Spanish film poster is at least not trying to bullshit us about the films origin

The script, by Lucio Fulci regulars Elisa Briganti and Dardano Sacchetti, fills the film with bizarre dialogue. The writers get pretty phoney here with lines from Crazy Bull referring to the crew as a bunch of “mother-grabbers”. Far too much of the script sets up problems that are resolved way too quickly to make any impact or are solved in lame ways by cheap sci-fi toys. Got a locked door? Why kick it down when you can just use my device that plays an annoying high-pitched sound effect that inexplicably unlocks things. The screenwriters are also aware that it’s an Italian production, so it’s not above showing children getting maimed. One of the more bizarre scenes in the film features a young boy (with the surprisingly un-Mad Maxish name of “Tommy”) has his arm ripped straight off by bikers. But don’t worry folks – it’s revealed to be a robotic arm (!) and is partially repaired by Alien, who puts it back together with duct tape(!?)
The only slightly original villain comes from singer and model Beryl Cunningham, in her final film role. Her weapon of choice is a glove with surprise spiked knuckles that shoot out whenever a camera zooms in on it. She wears this glorified switchblade glove along with a spiked leather bodysuit. . Seeing Cunningham in the suit makes one wonder if the role was intended for someone else, as the suit doesn’t appear to fit! Even a pinch saggy, Cunningham appears to be in great shape here and you think an exploitative film would want to make the most of this.


One of the few unique action scenes. I dig the Skull rollin’

The action scenes are just as delightfully stolen from Mad Max 2. Did you ever not want to sit through the entirety of that film to get the final chase? No worries, Exterminators of the Year 3000 gives it to you during the second big action scene. Outside a few Castellari styled slow motions shots, we get some very obvious issues such as the cars moving far too slowly to represent any real chase (imagine a slight traffic delay around your local highway during rush hour) or any shot from the inside of a vehicle where it’s way too easy the spot that vehicles are not in motion. Later scenes involve vehicles surrounding their captives in a circle which resembles a demolition derby. This type of capture would make sense on horseback, but I gather that Carnimeo perhaps only had a budget to destroy a select few cars.

As is the trend since the release of Drive, is that every single film is getting it’s score re-released. Even Exterminators of the Year 3000! There are several samples here that include the sillier dialouge from the film. Reminds me of the Diabolik bootleg soundtrack in that sense.

I’m afraid this isn’t too great of a soundtrack, probably just due to the limitations in both time and budget to record it. At least it doesn’t go the Sammo Hung route and just steal the score from Halloween and Rambo.

So we have a generic film without much to recommend outside a few goofy scenes and to see the extent to which filmmakers go in ripping off Mad Max 2. After my viewing of Exterminators, I began questioning the criticism of being “original” in film. What makes a rip-off an instant write-off while sequels are “highly anticipated”? Let’s imagine it’s an alternative universe where the producers of this film somehow get the rights to Mad Max franchise and would officially make this the third film in the series. Would it still be a rip-off? No one from the original film is involved, but would they be less criticized if we didn’t know the production history? Let’s look at Aliens by James Cameron. What if Cameron didn’t get the rights from Walter Hill and the other producers of Alien to continue the next picture, but he made his own Alien-killers-from-space film. Would people bash it by saying “Hmm. Clearly taken bits and pieces from Alien” or would would they give it a free pass as they do now because it’s an officially sanctioned follow-up?

In the case of Exterminators of the Year 3000, it’s problem is not that it took from the Mad Max series, but that it’s mostly poor action, bizarre acting and delivers less quality than we have been set-up with in the Future Barbarian genre. So I encourage viewers to not pass off on films if they appear to be derivative. I hope to one day find the Mad Max film that trumps some


Spy (2015) Review

June 27, 2015

One could say calling your film Spy suits the unimaginative titles that a Hollywood executive would like such as Let’s Be Cops or Shoot ‘Em Up. Films with titles like Quantum of Solace make people blush now a days, and we’re long past the days of films like Your Vice is a Locked Room and Only I Have the Key. Then again, masters like Fritz Lang called his earliest spy film Spies so maybe I’ve got to surgically remove my nostalgia-goggles. Spy has been received some surprisingly positive reviews and I’m not really sure if it’s well deserved.

Spy is a comedy by Paul Feig starring Melissa McCarthy. The two have worked together in films such as Bridesmaids (which Wikipedia humorously describes as a “neo-noir romantic comedy” currently) and The Heat, neither of which I’ve taken the time to view. In this film, McCarthy plays Susan Cooper who works for the CIA as a highly talented desk agent who guides Bradley Fine (Jude Law) on missions. After Fine is kidnapped on a mission, the CIA requires an unknown to go and finish his case and find out about his whereabouts. Cooper springs at the opportunity which has her running around Europe.

Spy seems to have traits of other American comedy films I’ve seen today involving a script which just has the basic necessities to make characters go from point a to point b and then letting the actors improvise when you really need to juice up a scene. I’ve seen clips of this in McCarthy’s other film Tammy as well, where the camera cuts away from a scripted scene and then have a close-up of the comedian is available in the scene and have them adlib a line where we do not see a character’s reaction until a cut away. This sort of ruins the cinematic nature of a film comedy to me, but it doesn’t make Spy a complete throw away that Tammy was. McCarthy and her Miranda Hart who plays her sidekick, are funny enough in these scenes and has enough zingers that will at least squeeze out a smile out of the audience if not a strong laugh. This also goes for Hart who also is squeezed into similar gags.

This isn’t the case for all the characters. Jason Statham surprisingly provides a comic performance of tough guy spy upset with McCarthy’s recent promotion to being a secret agent and often tries to one-up her or brag about his own past work. Also good is Peter Serafinowicz who plays an Italian sleaze ball spy who wants nothing more than to sex up Miss McCarthy. These guys seem to be sticking to the script and if they aren’t, I can assume that their characters have such short screen time that it allows them to feel more natural. Although the film is not as wildly out there as the films in the Austin Powers series, those films characters at least stick out in our mind as unique enough James Bond pastiches. McCarthy’s character of Cooper is given several identities which are amusing sight gags, but are immediately tossed off instead of developed into characters like Statham or Serafinowicz’s characters are. It made me wonder if the script wasn’t originally penned as a spy film. Scenes are sometimes connected strictly by McCarthy’s character saying “we have to do this now!” or “oops! I’ve left my gun in the other scene!”. At one point, McCarthy’s character drops her role as a spy to become a bodyguard to Rayna Boyanov (Rose Byrne) or when spy elements are handled poorly to make a character like model and bollywood actress Nargis Fakhri’s role as a rival spy seems a bit shoe-horned in.

Balancing action and comedy is a real complex cocktail. Spy makes some strange choices. First, some gags are straight slapstick which is fine, but the best masters of physical comedy didn’t let it be part of the entire set-up, whether it’s Keaton’s ability to move back and forth on a steam train seem different each time in the The General or Jackie Chan’s ability to have a simple gag like being stuck in a barrel in Drunken Master 2 changes the stakes of a scene opposed to a one-time gag that has no consequences. Spy is a bit all over the map, it ranges from the bad of just having her fall as she gets into a vehicle, to the better involving a successful bike jump over a ramp, that lands her into a pile of cement. The best humorous action scenes involves an airplane flight scene, which leads to bullet holes in a plane humorously plugged with whatever objects are laying near by.

Don’t even get me started on the special effects though as we get the expected CG created helicopter and airplane scenes, the worst offender is a vomit gag with CG puke. This makes me the most paranoid about the future as this director is in charge of the Ghostbusters remake which is a film that needs really strong comedy and special effects to work. The effects work and editing in Spy is a really crap sign of things to come.

Spy works best with expectations set low for theaters, but otherwise a satisfying enough film for a rainy afternoon. Story is just “there”, it has no real visual or kinetic flair but it’s just “funny enough” to maintain your interest and see what other funny things might happen. For a film simply titled Spy, that’s all I could ask for.


Mad Max: Fury Road Review

May 14, 2015

When Mad Max 2 was released in the early 80s, it followed an already good film by making it bigger and better, expanding the universe and everything that made the original a blast by tenfold. That’s what I desire from a sequel that has to make existing characters do something more than go through the same motions again – they need a grander task and adventure than the first film. This has been seen with other science fiction franchises, going as far back as Frankenstein (1931) to Bride of Frankenstein and Star Wars to The Empire Strikes Back and for me, Alien and Aliens. I’m happy to say we have it again in Mad Max: Fury Road. It’s not quite the quantum leap from the first film to the second, but it’s satisfied the thirst that Beyond Thunderdome did not quench many moons ago.

In short, Fury Road is all you could realistically want from a Mad Max movie in the age of digital film. If you demand the rough physicality of cars speeding along from the original film, you are on the wrong track, as the cars are at least 7 times more bulky now. If you demand a modernized version of Mad Max 2, you are getting much warmer. We get nice nods to the series and other films of its ilk from the past, But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s get into plot.

Fury Road takes place well beyond thunderdome, where we find Max quickly imprisoned by a new gang called the War Boys who number in the hundreds. These black metal-esque looking scrawny drones look like a hybrid between the slaves in the Smashing Pumpkins video for “Bullet With Butterfly Wings” and their lead singer Billy Corgan in the “Ava Adore” video. That’s not the only connection to rock music, as Max resembles Rob Zombie early in the picture, and later, freaks in the film appear to be long lost members of Slipknot. I’m not even going to go into detail about the vehicle that includes a thrash metal guitar player to rally the troops. Anyhow! The pale-faced goons are lead by Immortan Joe played by Hugh Keays-Byrne. Keays-Byrne is the only prominent cast member returning from the previous films, playing Toecutter in ”Mad Max”. This reappearance confuses me a bit, so I’m going to casually go back and forth, referring to him as both Immortan Joe and Ghost of Toecutter.

Ghost of Toecutter!

Immortan Joe rules his fortress from the cliffs, where he commands the War Boys who number in the hundreds. Immortan Joe enlists the next best new character in film, Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron), to gather more supplies from neighboring towns. Unbeknownst to him, Furiosa has taken some hostages and has her own plan to escape from his rule. After a wild chase that sees a return of the cars from The Cars that Ate Paris (1974), Max manages to meet up with Furiosa and the two make an uneasy truce to get them away from Ghost of Toecutter Immortan Joe who is in hot pursuit. Even worse for Max and crew is that Immortan Joe has teamed with other gang leaders, with appropriate Mad-Max names like The Bullet Farmer and The People Eater. We’ve seen these characters in earlier art design for the film, and I’m happy to state that they not only look the part, but the acting is sharp and without a bad performance throughout. Each character gives just the right amount of camp and comic-book intensity to their respective roles that it would be more silly if these people were not driving spike-covered monster trucks.

The Cars that Ate Paris live again!

Speaking of looks, if there is one thing that remains in memory from Mad Max 2 or Fury Road, it’s the art direction. Fury Road introduces a new vehicle or two per chase sequence. Each one looks like it was constructed from things we might see in a scrap yard in real life, but with an over-the-top makeover that would make the average monster truck driver drool. Even greater is that these vehicles are all real, not computer-generated blobs that perform impossible physics. I wish I could comment more on the look of the scenery and vehicles, but I viewed the film at a pre-screening event which was shown in 3D. Fury Road was post-converted into 3D and makes some visuals feel unusually out of place, such as muzzle flare effects and the occasional burst of flames. This ain’t Avatar, Gravity, or even Jackass 3D. Don’t see it in 3D!

Is the film flawless? Not really. Longtime purists of the series might call foul on Tom Hardy’s lack of screen time to show off the Mad Max character. Mel Gibson’s role of Max in the earlier films was always the stand-out performance, probably because he’s the only character who isn’t given any goofy faces to make.

goofy-reactions-Mad-MaxGoofy reaction shots are sadly(?) missing in Fury Road

I’ve really enjoyed Tom Hardy in some previous films like Bronson and Lawless , but he is not given as much time for us to delve into the Mad Max character, and almost feels like the side-kick in his own film. Thankfully, the new character is just as tough and wild as Furiosa, and gets her own Mad Max-esque storyline of loss. I can understand a fan’s disappointment with not seeing as much Max in a film called Mad Max, his name is in the title after all! Personally, I’m much more happy to see a new character rather than see Max go through the same problems for a third or fourth time. My only gripe about Furiosa is that her reaction to her group of young friends did not hit me quite as hard as lesser events in the film, such as Max’s annoyance at seeing others driving his car, or even Immortan Joe quickly turning his car to avoid crashing into one of his wives. Not that all important scenes with her lack an emotional tug, but each one should hit hard, especially for a character so prominent.

The final, major issue I have with the film is not one I’ve read in any early reviews; it involves how the film was shot. The original films have a rough and raw feel that actual film gives to a movie. We can tell there is a lot of digital tinkering going on in this picture with the hot orange scenes within the desert and the dark blues of the day-for-night shots, which reminded me more of the tinted scenes from Murnau’s Nosferatu than anything resembling a scene shot at night. Not sure what was on Miller’s mind with this stuff.

Fury Road should sucker-punch audiences who regularly devour the Disney-Marvel flicks or the Fast and the Furious franchise, and definitely feel more than satisfying for people who’ve waited for this film for over a decade. All I desired was a film that felt like it was made by the maniacs who made the first two films, and I received my healthy dose of the bizarre, perverse, and generously entertaining Mad Max world. Not unlike The Littlest Hobo, Max is shown leaving his accomplices after coming to their aid at the end. I look forward to see where he travels and who he meets next. (Mad Max that is, not the Littlest Hobo).


Retaliation Review

May 11, 2015

In the past, I have denounced films on this blog for not having an engaging enough narrative to back up their action sequences or having action sequences that had too much shaky cam, both of which removed my ability to engage in the action as it was shown. However, I’m about to praise the film Retaliation from 1968 for having both these issues. How is that fair? Does anything separate it from any number of Luc Besson produced wannabes?

Let’s bounce back for a minute. Retaliation is a Japanese film from the Nikkatsu in the 1960s. The crime films made by the studio were generally b-films that directors such as Yasuharu Hasebe or Seijun Suzuki could churn out quickly. Suzuki himself would casually quickly spew out four or so a year, but what made his so special was a matter of peppering the simple plots with all the energy, pace and strangeness you could desire on a tight budget. Suzuki’s Branded to Kill features men who become turned on by the smell of rice and feature women with dead birds hanging from their rear-view mirrors.They borrowed from James Bond films: gangsters, machoness and noir cool to create a delerious cocktail that made them unique creations. Suzuki has already earned his cult status with fans like John Woo,Jim Jarmusch and John Zorn. Seeing Suzuki’s films makes you wonder what the other films are like from Nikkatsu. Are they useless derivative junk with Suzuki being their only real diamond in the rough?

Outside Suzuki, Nikkatsu’s action films have been more written about about then watched. Retaliation is directed by Yasuharu Hasebe in 1968 and has recently been released on blu-ray and DVD by Arrow Video. It’s been screened on rare occasions at some Asian film festivals, but has only received an English-subbed home video release in 2015. The film, as of writing, this has less than 50 votes on IMDb. I hope this changes, as this film, when approached with the knowledge of Nikkatsu’s history, is quite a firecracker.

Japanse film poster Retaliation (1968)
Film poster for Retaliation

Retaliation was made quickly, with scripts written as the film was in the middle of shooting. This could lead to some messy narrative confusion, but actually allows the filmmakers freedom to go as far as they want when it comes to camera angles and pure cinematic staging. This film is about a gangster named Jiro Sagae (Akira Kobayashi), who is released from prison and finds himself lent out to another Yakuza clan, who are interested in purchasing land to increase their own grasp of the area. This makes the film’s original title I Own Your Turf! more apt. He meets with Jo Shisido’s character, Hino, who is forced to work with him – an act he cannot really sink his teeth into as Jiro had killed his relatives several years in the past. Shootouts between gang members and double-crosses ensue!

The film’s plot is a bit crude, with perhaps one too many characters. The fact that Jo Shishido’s character is more interesting than Kobayashi’s is an issue, as he has a motive for revenge while Kobayashi’s role is limited to his relationship with Meiko Kaji’s character and his old gangster leader who returns to the story towards the end. What shapes this film into something more interesting is how it’s shot. There is lots of hand-held camera work and the crew is quite playful when trying to illustrate the action. Take the opening scene, where we have a quick duel between Jo and Akira.


Normally, I’d leap at the chance at the point out scenes so obviously constructed to hide what’s going on, but peeking through the bushes and spying between train carts gave me this “you are there” feeling that I feel like shaky-cam developers like Paul Greengrass are trying to pull off in his Bourne series. It works here, I believe, because I can still see follow the action by seeing who’s attacking who and what they are attempting to do, but am given this in a new perspective of the “not having the best seat in the house” type camera. This type of camera trickery isn’t set strictly to the action scenes either and is often deployed in bizarre fashion such as a dinner meeting between gangsters where an argument erupts from a bird’s eye point of view. I’m not going to spoil any other scenes, but let’s say they involve spot light lit battles and one surprisingly brutal bathroom brawl.

If there’s sour parts, it’s the obligatory scenes of nudity and rape that began coming up in the 1970s. These scenes feel tossed in and only suggest that those bad guys we saw earlier are, guess what, bad! I know this is coming from a man who later directed films with titles as explicit as Raping!. What could that one be about. . .

I’m getting far off topic, but I’d suggest that if you like your films with the cool vibe of the John Woo and Johnnie To and just want to be swept into unique and kinetic camerawork and violent action scenes, please seek out Retaliation. For those requiring a new narrative or political importance in your crime sagas, I’m sure there are some Jean-Pierre Melville films you haven’t seen yet.