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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.

retaliation-train-fight

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.

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Under the Skin looks like…

July 16, 2014

Word up.

When I’m not trying to convince people that watching ”Zatoichi” would not be a waste of time, I dig modern non-testosterone fueled cinema. The kind where people somehow resolve their differences through words or worse vague symbolic gestures.

A few months back I had the pleasure of watching Under the Skin. (spoilers: it’s a mutha of a film). Looking at home video options, the UK steel book version using the original poster is especially nice looking.


Get rid of the reminder that the film features an Avengers
and you have got a purty cover

It just dawned on me now that I’ve seen this before. Dig the back of the Canadian steel book for Total Recall.

back-cover-total-recall-steelbook

This a beautiful film too

The similarities do not end there!

Both films have the following

  • characters luring each other with sex
  • hostile aliens
  • characters who think they are in dreams
  • people with great physical deformities
  • people from another planet who disguise themself as women
  • Dig Total Recall‘s own Under the Skin moment:

    total-recall-under-the-skin


    It’s obvious which film is superior

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    The Raid 2: Berandal Review

    May 4, 2014

    Despite managing to experience an early screening of The Raid 2, I’m already late with a review. No walk outs at my screening, but if I could shove the entire internet audience in, its reception would lead to a World War III among the audience. For those who don’t want to read me going over the film in nauseating detail, just read the headlines.

    It’s not bad

    Your own appreciation and/or tolerance of The Raid 2 is in how you approach it. I’ve created a Coles Notes version of the review for those who don’t like things written in paragraphs.

    1 IT HAD A LOT OF HYPE

    Just like its predecessor, The Raid, the film arrived with of a shitstorm of hype. Action-lovers were quick to the internet to vote the 9 and 10s on IMDb as soon as the first premieres happened. Even worse was that The Raid 2‘s early reviews compared the film to The Godfather (!) After hearing that, I tried to avoid all promotion, gushing, trailers, and reviews until I could see the damn thing myself. I had trouble avoiding the trailer, as YouTube “suggestions” got the better of me, and my regular Twitter feed wanted to see and hear every little bit they could. I succumbed to watching a single trailer, but that was it. Not bad for avoiding it like the plague.

    With this kind of hype, I don’t think anyone could go in and be 100% satisfied. Is it the best action film ever? To some maybe, but what are you comparing it too? Is Drunken Master 2 your favourite? Dirty Harry? The Killer? Terminator 2? Mad Max 2? These are films that excel in different ways and can’t all be measured by the same yard stick. So once the phrase “best _____ ever” comes into play, we all enter with different expectations of how it’s going to trump whatever we imagine to be the best in the genre. So if you are expecting this film to be similar to Mad Max 2, you are shit out of luck.

    2 IT HAS A PLOT

    People have told me after seeing this that the plot is dumber than a bag of hammers. Firmly plant me in the audience who wants his film peppered with a story that tries to do something different. These carbon copy screenplays leave me bored to tears when action isn’t happening though, so you have to really admire some of the cast or crew to watch them go through the same old hat that many times, right?

    This is going to be problematic for those who loved The Raid for its simple “kill the guys” plot. Simple isn’t bad, but simple with innovation is best. Unlike The Raid, which limited itself to individual grungy rooms, The Raid 2 takes place in various locations that include car chases, long lush hallways, dance clubs, prison bathrooms, and gives the viewers new characters and new locations to cause havoc! As the plot progresses, they up the ante involving the gangster plot and Iko Uwais’ character moving through the ranks as an undercover cop in the crime underworld. Not exactly deep, but I’m not expecting Ingmar Bergman either.

    This movie doesn’t have a stronger story underneath the action scenes like the gangster films of Johnnie To or John Woo. It lacks their more in-depth views of Cop/Gangster politics and their own personal views on how their characters act in their lives. It’s closer to a Luc Besson produced film, with lots of flashy scenes and attempts at character development. It’s all rather baroque in that sense: it looks nice, but lacks the depth to bring any real meaning to it. That’s fine by me though, as you see scenes as cartoonish as a shotgun to the face or a women walking off a porno set with a rubber strap-on. Set your expectations accordingly.

    3 DOES SECONDARY THINGS
    BETTER THAN THE RAID

    From the opening scene, it feels like less of a low budget film than The Raid. Sets are decorated wisely and we are constrained to a single building where each floor looks the same. This leads to great scenes, including a car chase organized by the Hong Kong team headed by Bruce Law. The secondary cast is much stronger too, with good performances by Tio Pauksadewo as the mob boss and Ryuhei Matsuda, who almost resembles a subdued J-pop boy band member. Enough has been said about Hammer Girl and Baseball Batman elsewhere, but I enjoyed these James Bond-esque villains who deliver the goods. They aren’t exactly fleshed-out, but they give us enough of a break from Iko Uwais, and allows other characters to display things that are desperately missing in The Raid, such as humor, or y’know, different locations. I don’t think anyone laughed at my screening of The Raid, but there were more much needed humorous touches in The Raid 2.

    I have really mixed feelings about Yayan Ruhian, the long-haired character in the film. Yayan’s side-plot isn’t needed in an already 2+ hour film but contain good choreographed action during his finale. Here’s hoping you can integrate him better into the plot next time, Gareth!

    4 SOME MAJOR THINGS ARE
    WORSE THAN THE RAID

    Early action scenes in the film do not entirely work. Evans sets-up the two prison action scenes at the mudpit and the washroom, quite admirably building the right amount of tension before they should take off. However, as soon as they start, they are plagued by shakey-cam and are bit hard to follow what’s going on, especially with Uwais battling several people at once.

    As the plot progresses, I found the shaky cam less obtrusive or perhaps less prevalent. This brings up my theory: do we only really notice these techniques in films when we are frustrated with a film’s plot points or when scenes run on too long? Other shakey-cam pioneers, like Lars von Trier, have cams moving around like they’re manned by a drunk, but I only notice it during scenes where I’m getting a bit bored about extended conversations about fly fishing or whatever is happening in Nymphomaniac. But back to The Raid 2, when Iko leaves prison, I got into the film more and ta-da, the shakey-cam seemed less distracting. Magic!

    Most frustrating for me is that the biggest problem I had with The Raid is still present: Iko Uwais’ acting. It doesn’t live up to the standards of the rest of his cast. His facial expression never changes beyond a brooding stare. That being said, he can brood with the best of ‘em, but even Batman cracks jokes with Alfred once in awhile and Christian Bale is mocked incessantly for his Nolan Batman series online. Iko’s brow never changes, even during the following events:

    Iko Uwais in The Raid 2

    I had to keep myself from giggling in the theater when we see Iko on a toilet looking quite cross at something at one point in the film. It’s revealed that he’s just about to meet up with a host of baddies who are eager for his blood outside his stall, but it looks like he’s just intensely upset about his lack of Pepto Bismol. Iko is a long ways away from other leading men who can balance out facial reactions to match a scene.

    So, The Raid 2 fixes several things I tolerated in the first film and offers a greater amount of variety and whiz and bang. What it lacks, however, is a story that pushes it beyond the action that is inherent in the films of To, Woo, or Ringo Lam. It also needs a leading actor with the skill and charisma of Chow Yun Fat. If you can overlook the hype machine and want to see a flashy, lengthy film with lots of violent action, The Raid 2 lives up to such standards. If you want the next The Killer or Exiled, you’re going to be checking your watch. If you are looking for crazy action reminiscent of golden era Hong Kong, then just wait until they get out of prison in the film. I hope Evans doesn’t abandon action films entirely, but with such hype erupting before these films even screen, how could his next work be anything but underwhelming? Maybe he needs to take a break and come back to The Raid franchise once the hype for these films settles down.

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    Boss Nigger Review

    February 24, 2014

    Much like Gun Crazy or The Incredibly Strange Creatures Who Died and Came Back as Mixed Up Zombies, if you have a title this wild for a film, you better do it right the first time. So think fast what film has the most offensive title that’s apparently family friendly?

    Boss Nigger Film Rating
    Kids could handle things like this easier back then.

    Boss Nigger of course! A Blaxploitation Western with a cast and crew of young black stars of the day and old white people behind the camera. I wish the production history on the film was documented somewhere. It was written, produced and stars Fred Williamson, who has charisma to spare even when he’s relegated to minor roles. Thankfully, he has a starring role and much more screen time here than in 1990: The Bronx Warriors.

    Here’some production run down:

    Robert Caramico Cinematographer of the Ed Wood scripted pornography film Orgy of the Dead and Tobe Hooper’s Eaten Alive
    Gene Ruggiero Film editor old enough to have worked on Ninotchka (1939). Boss Nigger is Edited alongside Eva Ruggiero (wife? cousin? daughter? what’s the link!?)
    Jack Arnold Director of superior 50s science fiction films The Incredible Shrinking Man and Creature from the Black Lagoon. Current old white guy making film called Boss Nigger.

    I want to see pictures of these guys on set next to D’Urville Martin and Fred Williamson! Jack Arnold was sort of at the end of his career making this film and had settled into mostly directing television. Even in his best films, I don’t know how much personal input he had to make his mark as a director. I mostly remember his more popular films either having solid 1950s special effects and cinematography (or in the case of Shrinking Man, a surprisingly heavy ending that comes out of nowhere!) It’s not the 1950s anymore, and outside occasionally nice landscape shots of desert scenery, the film mise-en-scene is pretty awful. The flat illustration below of the Western town is pretty much how the town looks the entire movie.

    boss-nigger-review

    So don’t watch this expecting The Wild Bunch or The Shootist. Boss Nigger is a completely different story. Its story revolves around Boss (Fred Williamson) and Amos (D’urville Martin) arriving in town, they saving a black woman from racist killers and electing themselves Sheriffs, because why not!? Between helping other minorities and seducing any attractive young woman in sight, we then follow a standard Blaxploitation formula:

    WHITE PERSON ACTS RACIST
    GETS SHIT KICKED OUT OF THEM
    REPEAT FOR HALF AN HOUR

    That sums up half of Boss Nigger’s running time. We are then treated to Boss and Amos rescuing a black woman from racist Outlaw kidnappers. It all leads to some bad decisions made by our heroes, as they have a showdown in town leaving quite a good number of the cast dead. If that sounds like a pretty basic plot that could’ve been shot as a TV show, you are right. Williamson and Arnold just really extend these scenes to make a feature and it’s not subtle.

    Nobody enters Boss Nigger expecting a fresh take on the Western genre and it’s not even as creative as Blazing Saddles, made a year earlier. It’s about making real, serious issues (like racism) seem like a firearm-filled walk in the park with Fred Williamson arresting and fighting assholes. D’Urville Martin, by the way, is no Fred Williamson. He is supposed to be the comic relief, but the real humour comes from his complete lack of competence in the role, which makes him quite endearing. D’Urville is a bit short and seems to have trouble with horseback riding and basic gunplay in the film. By comparison, Fred Williamson is much funnier, even with less obvious jokes. Maybe D’Urville was distracted by his directorial debut, Dolemite, which was released in the same year.
    Since D’urville is nominated for “person most likely to accidentally shoot himself in a fight”, the rest of the cast is mostly stock bad-racist whitey or “one of the good ones” Boss supporters. No one really stands out. They are only there to be the butt of jokes, or the in case of women, get naked or fawn over Boss. The action is also weaker in the film, with only Fred making fighting seem fun., Some fights are choreographed badly, particularly the final fight, where a good part is not in the camera’s sight as it’s behind a bar in the saloon. You see tons of whiskey bottles on the wall and no one even breaks them! It’s not as poor or laughable as Dolemite, but doesn’t leave much of an impression either.

    My favourite thing about blaxploitation films is their soundtracks. Boss Nigger has a score with the very modern sounding “We Produce” name credited as the composer. It’s funny to watch Boss and Amos ride horses in a Western setting to a set of generic funk riffs. Occasionally, a more traditional Western score is heard, especially when the story shifts to the racist outlaws on set. However, it doesn’t last, as the final showdown has the racist outlaws riding into town with that crazy funk score again! Who screwed that up? There funk score even resembles the People’s Court intro theme. Isn’t cool when films date weirdly like that?

    The notorious theme song is the most noteworthy piece, which is performed by Terrible Tom. I can’t find any evidence of Terrible Tom doing any other music outside this film. (If you are Terrible Tom or know anything about him, contact me). The song is not as strong as the music from SuperFly or Shaft, but if you find the title “Boss Nigger” in any way entertaining, you’ll find the chorus entering your mind when you least expect it.

    The film has a surprisingly high rating on IMDb, which I assume stems from people enjoying the risque title. Boss Nigger has some amusing lines from Williamson, but as a story, it’s a mess. If the Blaxploitation traits of strong, overtly sexual and aggressive black men punching out idiotic racists is your thing, than this will satisfy you, as it’s slightly unique setting alone to make it stand out from other Blaxploitation hybrids like Space is the Place or Blacula. Despite the occasional weak production value and storytelling, it’s entertaining to see Fred Williamson do his thing with a lighter racial commentary. Besides, what other PG films has women and children killed, socialism praised, and racism handled with violence? If only all modern day PG films were as crazy as that, genre fans wouldn’t cry over PG-13 so much now, would they?

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    Gamera 3: The Revenge of Iris Review

    November 1, 2013
    gamera-trilogy

    This blu-ray is for sale for $5 everywhere! Get it!

    Does the “Giant Monsters from Japan” genre fall into the action genre? From my research, Godzilla and friends seem to be of greater interest to a sub-suction of science fiction fans who can’t get enough of their favourite monster’s showcasing their powers and unique designs more than the how good the films are when the monsters are battling.

    I have seen a number of Godzilla films that came out in the 2000s, but have never watched the Gamera series until recently. The original 1960s Gamera series make some of the sillier Godzilla films look like Annie Hall. It does not help that the Mystery Science Theater 3000 crew has permanently etched in the minds of audiences that Gamera films are juvenile junk. Surprisingly, their jibs and jabs have become a blessing in disguise. Godzilla expert David Kalat has stated that special effects artist Shinji Higuchi was watching MST3K in a Los Angeles hotel room when he saw the mocking robots tear apart the Gamera films. Both Higuchi and director Shusuke Kaneko were on the cusp of rebooting the Gamera series in the 1990s, and did not want their creation to be viewed in the same light.

    The first two films in the 1990s Gamera series are mostly notable for their special effects. Gamera: Guardian of the Universe has very nicely detailed models but is hampered by poorly done compositing visuals that took me out of the film. The human characters are as stiff as ever in the first film, but they get a decent boost in Gamera 2: Attack of Legion, which has a story that feels inspired by/rips off Aliens and Them! As the third film re-uses and references the characters and plot points of the first two films, it is best to watch those if you want to get the most out of Gamera 3.

    That being said, Gamera 3: The Revenge of Iris is a great improvement from the first two films. Gone are the flatly lit sets, dull military planning scenes and half-asleep actors that only exit to talk about Gamera when he’s not on screen. The film also benefits from a darker tone and visuals that wouldn’t be out of place in a film like Dark City or Tim Burton’s Batman. The monster Gamera now looks far more threatening than before which suit the film’s plot written by director Shusuke Kaneko and screenwriter Kazunori Itō. This was Kaneko’s first time as a screenwriter in a Gamera film, while Itō’s resume includes the acclaimed Ghost in the Shell and the Patalabor anime series.

    gamera-ghost-in-the-shell-poster
    ghost-in-the-shell-poster
    Put your mouse over the poster to see what could have been.

    Gamera 3 isn’t as serious as Ghost in the Shell, but as of its release in 1999, it was probably one of the most entertaining monster mashes of the decade! The characters are not leveled with complexity, but they are far more memorable than any previous entries in the series. Characters like Ai Maeda who has a delightfully bizarre bond with the monster Isis adds a human element to both the story and the monster which is desperately needed in this genre. Thankfully, secondary characters like a scenery chewing mad video game programmer are also amusing in their own right.

    Not all is perfect in Gamera 3, the film’s pace slows down a bit towards the middle where it becomes overtly talky. The anime influenced storyline is…daffy to say the least. Take the part of the plot that involves Gamera needing mana to survive…or something! These nature-preservation themed things are handled in much less derpy manner in films like Princess Mononoke.
    Some reviewers have complained about the computer generated imagery of Isis as straying too far from traditional kaiju territory. I’m not 100% for CGI in films, but I feel that Gamera 3 is a very strong combination of practical and computer generated effects. Besides, there are far more dated effects in Guardian of the Universe. If CGI was needed to create Isis, than I’m all for it as the creature is one of the more interesting beasts in the series. He/She/It follows my rules for a good monster in film.

    1) Don’t tease the audience about the look of a monster. People entering the film know it’s a monster movie and have seen trailers and posters so we all know how the monster looks! Give us something and make the monster evolve and change so it’s not some giant reveal for the last 15 minutes of the film. Gamera’s first reign of destruction happens fairly early in the film and is then followed by the development of Iris.

    2) Keep the monster motives interesting. After it attacks once, let part of the plot be finding out why it attacks and what kind of unique strengths and weaknesses it has. It’s more interesting to see what it can or cannot do and how people in the film deal with their monster problem. This works well in films like Tremors with the rock hopping to avoid the creatures or The Descent where the crawlers can only hunt their prey through sound. In Gamera 3,the characters who trust Gamera as a savior begin to have doubts while Isis’ connection with Ai Maeda keeps their status above par.

    The film was released on Blu-ray a few years back and is very easy to find at a price of under $10. So why is Gamera 3 never talked about?
    According to the website Tohokingdom.com, the film was not as financially successful as the previous Gamera films. The film ends in a cliff-hanger and no direct sequel. The next Gamera film was released in 2006 and was not part of this 1990s series, not made by Toho, and was a more family-friendly affair with a cute baby Gamera.

    I think Western audiences were more interested in the wave of J-Horror films like The Ring and The Grudge which were the newest hip films from Asia at the time. Not to mention that Battle Royale and the controversial films Takashii Miike were also a hot commodity of their day. It’s too bad, because Gamera 3 deserves as large of a fanbase as these films have. Perhaps it was because Gamera as a monster is harder to market. Gamera’s has to to appeal to a fanbase by sticking to it’s roots: he better still spin in his shell and fly around! Outsiders will definitely have a tricky time with the concept as, surprise, surprise: Turtles do not fly. Godzilla at least resembles more familiar lizards and audiences can associate him with a fire breathing dragon or a gargantuan dinosaur. It’s not easy being a turtle, let alone a flying one.
    Despite some minor flaws, Gamera 3 is heads and tails above other giant monster films in terms of story, action and spectacle. I have no hesitation in recommend picking it up the Gamera trilogy, so you can watch the other two films first to prepare yourself for the monster-bashing feast that is Gamera 3.

    go-go-gamera
    Put your mouse over Gamera!
    Go Go Gamera! Happy Halloween!

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