Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Hugo (2011)

Title: Hugo (2011)

Director: Martin Scorcese

Cast: Ben Kingsley, Sacha Baron Cohen, Jude Law, Asa Butterfield, Chloe Grace Moretz, , Christopher Lee, Emily Mortimer


Georges Melies was a genius back in his day; the guy was not only an accomplished illusionist, he was also one of the first film directors to use special effects in films. He is the filmmaker responsible for such important films as The Impossible Voyage (1904) and A Trip to the Moon (1902), the short film in which men travel to the moon on a bullet like rocket, and land on the moons eye. His films where filled with wizards, mermaids and adventurers; he was one of the first filmmakers to fall in love with the childlike wonderment of illusion and magic. He is also the focus of Martin Scorcese’s latest masterpiece, Hugo. And yeah, that’s right I used the ‘m’ word which is a status I reserve for those movies that are works of art, films that I enjoyed on every level, films that really ‘get to me’. Hugo was made by an extremely experienced director fully in control of the filmmaking tools at his disposal, ladies and gentlemen I speak of course of the great Martin Scorcese; who like the best filmmakers of the world, continues making amazing films even through his old age, and thank the film gods for that! Hugo is a beautiful film!

Hugo tells the tale of one Hugo Cabret, an orphan who’s really had a difficult time in life. He lives behind the giant clocks on a train station in France. No one knows that it’s a child that gives maintenance to the clocks on the train station, but it's Hugo behind it. When he isnt fixing clocks, he's working on a mechanical toy called an ‘automaton’. This automaton was a toy that he inherited from his father, when he died. Unfortunately,  Hugo's dad  never really finished working on it, and so, he never got it to work properly. It can write words on paper, and so Hugo believes that if he finishes fixing it, that it will write him a message from his dead father. Will Hugo ever discover the automaton’s message?

As you can see, Hugo is a film about an orphan, living on his own in the world, trying to survive as best as he can. The premise of the film brings to mind similar films like Oliver (1968) and Annie (1982);  you know films about kids who’s parents have died and have to either be brought up by the government in an orphanage or live on the streets, eating whatever food they can steal; scurrying through the city, running away from authority figures. Hugo is also one of those films that is about film itself.; it focuses a lot of its running time on the life of French filmmaker Georges Melies. In this way, by exploring the life of Melies, Martin Scorcese takes the opportunity to explore the nature of films and why we love them so much. Hugo is a film that is about cinema and the whole creative process behind making films. It’s about how much fun is had making a movie and the joy of having others see, enjoy and remember your work. It’s about why we enjoy going to the movies, why it’s our great escape. Why films are the stuff that dreams are made of, which is why it brought to mind an Italian film called Cinema Paradiso (1988) a film about a little kid who works in a movie theater, and falls in love with films so much that he eventually becomes a famous director. He also befriends and older man, same as in Hugo. By the way I highly recommend Cinema Paradiso to all film lovers out there, if you haven’t seen it, do yourselves a favor!  

Hugo is a very layered film, it’s not simplistic. Aside from commenting on all the things mentioned, it is also a film that speaks about humanity and how we are each essential parts of a big machine, the world. And how we all serve a purpose in this world; all we need to do is discover what that purpose is. If we don’t, we remain broken, incomplete. It’s a film that instills hope in ones heart to achieve our goals, and become everything we always wanted to become. One awesome moment has Hugo looking directly at the automaton and saying that the robot is waiting “to do what he came to do”, in this way Scorcese urges us to do the same. I love films like Hugo; family films that don’t  treat you or the children watching it like idiots. The themes Hugo addresses are relevant and important, it does a good job of placing beautiful and important ideas out there in the world and in childrens minds. And that’s really the best thing a director can do, use his story telling abilities to spread positive, life changing ideas out there in the world through their films. Scorcese is a filmmaker that's had his time in this world, and the film has that weight of a filmmaker who knows about life and so it’s not a film with paper thin themes, this is a film with something to say, a film filled with ideas picked up through a life time of experiences. I mean, the whole film is about trying to fix a toy robot that looks like a man, and what we need to fix is his heart. Hugo needs to fix the internal machinery of the automaton and find the key that will get it to work properly. “It isn’t going to be easy” one character says, but it can be done! Hugo is a film filled with hope for humanity and the idea that man can improve and become something better, that we can change, that we can evolve.

At one moment in the film, Isabelle (the girl who befriends Hugo) takes him to a bookstore. When she sees that he is not as excited as she is to be there she asks him “Don’t you LIKE books?” In this way, Scorcese takes the opportunity to praise the greatness of books, and the value he has for them. I love this about the film because in today’s IPad and IPhone filled world, where people aren’t even holding real books in their hands anymore, I appreciated the fact that Hugo was about enjoying going into a book store or library and searching for that perfect book to read, possibly with a loved one before going to bed. The kids in this film have questions about something and together, they go into this giant library, looking at books with wonderment in their eyes. Kudos to Scorcese for putting these ideas across, in my opinion, the importance of the printed word should not be taken for granted and this movie does a good job of placing an emphasis on this.

The visuals are nothing short of amazing, every scene is jam packed with details and color. It’s one of those films where France looks magical and vivid! Some scenes reminded me of a Fellini film, with its buoyant streets filled with life, love, food and music. And speaking of the visuals, Scorcese really took advantage of 3-D on this one; this is one of those films best experienced on 3-D, this is in my opinion some of the best 3-D I’ve seen since Cameron’s Avatar (2009), there is some real depth to these images, at times you really feel as if you’re walking through all those giant gears. You’ll feel like Charlie Chaplin rolling through the machinery in Modern Times (1936).  This is a film that uses 3-D the way it's meant to be used. I’ve already seen Hugo twice in theaters because number one, I loved it and I felt the need to take in these beautiful visuals and moving story one more time, and two, because I wanted to share this film with someone I loved, which is the same you should do.

Rating: 5 out of  5

Friday, December 23, 2011

13 Questions with Director Dante Tomaselli

For a while now, we’ve been chronicling the production of a film here on The Film Connoisseur, I’m talking about Dante Tomaselli’s fourth feature film Torture Chamber which is just about ready to be released onto the world. Mr. Tomaselli is the director behind Desecration (1999), Horror (2002) and Satans Playground (2006). He has just finished post-production on Torture Chamber and I was curious as to how he felt about the finished film, he was kind enough to grant an interview for The Film Connoisseur. 

This is our third Dante Tomaselli interview, on the first one, he was just getting ready to start shooting Torture Chamber, on the second interview he’d just finished principal photography and was getting ready to start editing, and now, finally I offer you the third interview in which Dante Tomaselli reminisces about the shoot and tells us a little bit about how he feels with the final cut of the film, from sound and music, to editing, to the over all final product. He even tells us how he feels about Torture Chamber when compared to his previous films! 

So, as a X-Mas present from The Film Connoisseur, I leave you guys with horror director on the rise, Mr. Dante Tomaselli ladies and gentlemen! 

The Film Connoisseur - What motivated you to write a film like Torture Chamber? What was the seed of the idea? 

Dante Tomaselli- I was supposed to direct a horror picture called The Ocean, it was all ready to happen, but didn't. So I was feeling angry; I was hurt and well, tortured. I wanted to conjure a Euro-horror-like experience on a low budget. Something very different. Something weird and frightening. Of course scary is subjective, but a movie that was at the very least very creepy and dark and out-there. A serious horror movie...with surrealistic tendencies. My mind kept going to visual metaphor. What do I want to symbolize? There's always been a torture chamber in every one of my films. In Desecration, it was in that nightmare childhood room with the cage, the heart and soul of the movie. In Horror, there was a religious family's home...and deep inside a torture chamber hidden behind a mysterious door. Even in Satan's Playground, the Leeds family had a backroom where there was a ramshackle torture chamber. 

TFC- You are a filmmaker with your very own unique vision, but were you inspired by any films or directors for Torture Chamber? For example, Satan’s Playground was obviously inspired by Evil Dead (1981) and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974). What were your influences this time around? To me, the film seems to have a real 70’s vibe to it, at least visually. 

DT- Thanks. I think this film was about me being myself. It really is an explosion of my earlier films. I like to replicate my childhood nightmares. Torture Chamber definitely has a 70's vibe, it could even be 60's. I made sure there were no cell phones...There are even records, LP's in the background... little things to help put you in that mind set. I really don't like modern, corporate horror films with teenagers looking all trendy and hip. I strive for a kind of 60's, 70's design. Torture Chamber is nothing if not different. If I had to cite some influences that were floating around in the back of my mind, I'd say Halloween, Black Sabbath, Suspiria, The Beyond, The Pit and the Pendulum, Alice Sweet Alice, Don't Look Now, The Brood, The House With Laughing Windows, Carrie, Tourist Trap, Bloody Pit of Horror, This Night I'll Possess Your Corpse, The Fog...and The Exorcist

TFC- Was shooting this film a smoother experience, considering this is your fourth film and you are now more experienced? 

DT- It was a lesson in tenacity...getting Torture Chamber made. I had almost given up after not shooting The Ocean, so it felt very much like my first film all over again. I felt raw, awake. 

Tomaselli Directs!

TFC- Now that it's finished, how do feel about Torture Chamber when compared to your previous films? 

DT- I value this film most. I can watch it and...for the most part...not feel uncomfortable. I know that it was the next step. Torture Chamber needed to be created, maybe more urgently than anything I've ever pulled out of the pit of my psyche. These bubbling images needed to be unlocked. The glowing soundscapes too. It's a journey through the halls of hell. An interior journey...It's the furthest down into hell that I've reached. The budget was $200, 000. That's actually less than Satan's Playground and Horror. Somehow, though, this film appears more polished and expensive than anything I've done. If I had a higher budget, I'd be able to deliver much more, expand upon everything, but, you know, you have to work with what you have. 

TFC- How was that experience of turning the images you’d written into moving images? Seeing your words come to life? 

DT- That's the best part about it all but it's also tricky because things pop up on the day of shooting that you never planned...and I've learned to be flexible. It can be frustrating. I get disappointed in myself when I can't pull it off. It feels magical when it's working. We're all creators. It's a human instinct. When I was a little boy, I used to dream about having my own funhouse in my backyard. Dante's Inferno. Now in a sense, that's what I'm striving for. Maybe these films are psychedelic funhouses. 

TFC- Last time we spoke you had just finished filming and had not edited yet. Now that the editing is done, what challenges did you face during the editing process? What was the approach with it? 

DT- After I shot Torture Chamber, I spent three months getting to know the footage. The first cut that I made was too long. Close to 2 hours. It was a challenge trimming it down, very painful. All the while, I was constantly changing the music or tweaking it. In the beginning, the sound design is a sketch...and then it becomes more and more fleshed out. John Carpenter once said it's like laying down carpet and it's so true. The movie is like a sculpture. I needed to trim the beginning and ending of many shots. After I did that, all of a sudden, it moved faster, like an acid trip. It's shadowy and tactile...hallucinogenic. You won't need drugs. Or maybe that's exactly what's needed (laughs). At times it should feel like an out-of-body-experience. 

TFC- You mentioned in your last interview that though Torture Chamber does have its gory moments; it’s not really a gore fest; that you were aiming for suggestive scares and unconscious dread. Taking a look at your finished film, do you think you achieved it? 

DT- I think so. It's a mixture, definitely both. Mostly it's a kind of under-the-skin feeling...the accumulation of the pictures and sounds...telling the tale of a religious family that wants to kill itself. The film is really about peeling back layers of pain and guilt buried in the unconscious mind. From beginning to end, it's a trance movie. I try to pack each shot with as much detail as possible. I want the viewer lost, not knowing what to expect next. Torture Chamber is a psychological horror film that is a bit of a mind-fuck. 

TFC- How would you describe Torture Chamber

DT- Hopefully a step above...It definitely appears to be the most watchable out of my works but I'm sure some people will still like my earlier stuff. I understand that. I always tend to like the oldest works of filmmakers or musicians. Definitely the strange world of Torture Chamber intrigues me the most right now. It feels like Desecration and Horror in a blender. 

TFC- Can you speak to us about the benefits of making a film like Torture Chamber independently? 

DT- I only make films independently. To me, it's the only way to go. Why spend years of your life working on a film and then someone else has the power to change it? You want creative control. 

Dante in the set of Torture Chamber

TFC- Have you seen the film with an audience yet? What’s the experience of watching your finished films with an audience like? 

DT- I've been having private screenings since Halloween. Michael Gingold from Fangoria was over a few weeks ago. I've watched it with complete strangers...friends of friends that are not even into horror. The feedback has been generally good. It's a low budget $200, 000 film. The visuals and soundtrack are its strengths. Torture Chamber is really about family sickness, being trapped in childhood and the confusion of being alive. 

TFC- What was it like to work with Lynn Lowry? 

DT- I really loved working with Lynn. She didn't realize it but her scenes had some unconscious nods to Mario Bava's Black Sabbath...the mood and feel. She's trapped in a lush, colorful world that is turning itself on her. I really enjoyed her behind-the-scenes stories about working with Cronenberg and Romero. Lynn's so pleasant and good natured. A really nice lady. She's a doll. In Torture Chamber, she's an art therapist at a Juvenile Detention Center for the clinically insane. She's like a wounded angel. Her story is told through a series of dreams, flashbacks and hallucinations. 

TFC- Any lessons learned while making Torture Chamber? Do you feel you’ve grown as a filmmaker after this fourth entry? 

DT- I've learned...Never ever ever give up. Hold on. It's so important. It's everything. You have to go through the darkness to get to the light. I think I've grown...but weirdly I feel like I'm at the beginning all over again. 

TFC- What can we expect in near future from Dante Tomaselli? Is the remake to Alice, Sweet Alice (1976) still in the cards?The Ocean? Salem? I was really curious about Salem. I’d love to see what you’d do with a film about witchcraft. 

DT- Thanks. I completed four features so far. I'm grateful that I got the opportunity to make them, especially Torture Chamber. What's next? Alice, Sweet Alice, a re-imagining of my cousin, Alfred Sole's film. The Ocean is somewhere in the future. It's just a matter of financing. I never really moved forward with Salem and now with hearing about Rob Zombie's film, Lords of Salem...I definitely wouldn't call it Salem. I do want to set a future picture there and explore witchcraft. I've purposely set all my movies in a kind of New England gothic atmosphere. I'm interested in locations that reverberate pain and suffering...a state of can feel the psychic footprints.

Well that's it ladies and gents, 13 Questions with Dante Tomaselli. I want to thank Dante Tomaselli for giving us this interview, it's been fun and educational following the production of Torture Chamber, all that was missing was a set visit! Who knows, maybe we'll have one of those for Dante's next film! In the meanwhile remember kids, Torture Chamber will be released sometime soon, so expect an announcement for it as soon as it happens! 

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

The Flying Guillotine (1975)

Title: The Flying Guillotine (1975)

Director: Meng Hua Ho


In the world of Kung Fu movies, there is no more infamous a weapon than the deadly Flying Guillotine. For those who don’t know what the hell a Flying Guillotine is, it is this ancient Chinese weapon that you throw through the air like a Frisbee; it falls over your victims head like a hat, then you pull the chain and the blades inside of the contraption decapitate your opponent. When you pull the chain towards you, it brings back your enemies head inside. The interesting thing about the Flying Guillotine is that its origins are firmly rooted in reality! I always thought that the Flying Guillotine was a made up weapon for the movies, but no, as it turns out this weapon was used by a Chinese emperor called Yongzheng during the Qing Dynasty. There are no pictures or artistic representations of the weapon, but the weapon is described in ancient manuscripts, and from these descriptions comes the weapon we see in the film, which has gone on to become one of the most recognizable weapons in the Kung Fu Movie world. The Flying Guillotine was the first film to bring this ancient weapon to life. How was it?

On this film we meet Emperor Yung Cheng, a political leader who is systematically eliminating any one who opposes the government. You don’t like what the government is doing? You think they are abusing the people? Stealing money from them? Well, if you say even one word against the Emperor, he will have you killed. That’s how he rolls. But he is presented by a conundrum: won’t the government look bad if everyone knows that they are killing people left and right? Shouldn’t these killings be done in a more discreet manner? So in order to avoid being seen in a bad light by his people, the Emperor decides he will instead send assassins to kill the opposing rebels. He has one of his men design a new weapon for the assassins to use called The Flying Guillotine! With it, you can decapitate an enemy from 100 feet away! But learning how to master this new weapon takes time, so the Emperor has 12 of his best men trained in the use of the Flying Guillotine. He wants them to master the weapon so they can serve as assassins for him. Will they go forward with the Emperors wishes of killing innocent people simply because they think differently than he does?

Interesting thing about this movie is that even though it was the first Flying Guillotine movie, it is not as well known as others that came after it, like Master of the Flying Guillotine (1976) for example, which is a more renowned film. I guess the limited availability on DVD is what hindered folks from knowing more about the first Flying Guillotine film. But, anyways, thanks to the folks at Celestial Films and their “Dragon Dynasty” label, we are finally getting all these old Kung Fu movies on dvd and I’m having a blast finally getting to see all these Shaw Bros. Kung Fu Classics. The cool thing about this film is that it presents us with the origin of the weapon. We get to see how it was conceived by its creator, how he came up with the idea. We see the weapons first prototype, and we see the first batch of soldiers that were especially trained to become masters of this weapon. I thought this was the most interesting aspect of the film because in other movies, they don’t show any of this, the weapon simply exists and that’s it, but not on this one.

By the way, this movie is very much centered on the weapon itself; you kind of get the feeling that the weapon is the star of the show, almost like a character!  In fact, this film is a little different than most Shaw Brothers Kung Fu Films because it doesn’t focus so much on elaborately choreographed Kung Fu fights, in fact, the fights are rather slow when compared to other Shaw Brothers Kung Fu flicks. Though we do get a couple of Kung Fu fights on this film, they don’t take center stage, which is left for the Flying Guillotine and its wielders. Whenever this film is on, it’s because somebody is decapitating somebody with the Flying Guillotine, these are the scenes that really make this film special. I mean, I kept rewinding the film whenever there was some Flying Guillotine action going on! So just be ready for a film that isn’t as action packed as other Shaw Bros. movies; you won’t see that many Kung Fu fights, instead the film focuses more on character development and story, which was actually interesting.  

Speaking of the films themes, this one was very subversive, as are many Chinese period films. The Emperor creates a small army of soldiers who become masters of the flying guillotine, but they don’t exactly know why they are being trained. They simply know they must master this weapon because the Emperor commands it. But when they receive their first mission, and they see that they were trained to become killers for the Emperor, some of them confront an emotional conundrum. Should we kill innocents for the government? I thought this was so interesting, because I ask myself the same questions whenever I see brainwashed cops hitting university students. Don’t these cops have any humanity in them? I’m sure they question themselves and the orders they are given, but they simply ignore these thoughts, because they are programmed to do so. And so, this is where our rebel hero emerges in The Flying Guillotine. The hero of the film has to deal with this moral dilemma, yet decides he wants out! So then the film turns into the government hunting down Ma Teng, the rebel. It reminded me in some ways of Shogun Assassin (1980) because that one is also about a soldier of the government who is deemed too dangerous to let live. It also reminded me of Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven (1992) and even The Return of the One Armed Swordsman (1969), both films about ex gunslingers/sword masters that decide to retire so they can live the quiet, simple life in the country; only to be asked to use their abilities one last time. On The Flying Guillotine the hero has to turn his back on the country life and his family so he can face the evil Emperor and his gang of assassins.

All in all, I’d say that The Flying Guillotine is a well made film. It has one really good thing about it, many of the scenes where shot in actual locations. In other words: fake looking claustrophobic sets where kept to a minimum. This is something I greatly appreciated because if there is something I absolutely hate about some Shaw Brothers movies is seeing that fake sky in the background, which is obviously a painting. But not on The Flying Guillotine, which as it turns out is one of the most beautifully shot Shaw Brothers movies, at least in my opinion. It isn’t as action packed and it’s a film that is more story oriented than most Kung Fu flicks, but it more than makes up for it whenever the flying guillotine comes into play! A total of 25 heads are decapitated on this film alone! The last 20 minutes of this film are pure DYNO-mite! After having seen this one, I have to say that Jimmy Wang’s Master of the Flying Guillotine (1976) is still my favorite of these Flying Guillotine movies simply because it has a bit more entertainment value. I’m looking forward to seeing The Flying Guillotine II (1978) from what I hear about that one, it’s supposed to be more action packed then the first one. Expect a review for that one soon!

Rating: 4 out of 5   

Monday, December 19, 2011

The Guyver (1991)

Title: The Guyver (1991)

Directors: Steve Wang and Screaming Mad George

Cast: Mark Hamill, David Gale, Jimmy Walker, Michael Berryman, Jack Armstrong, Vivian Wu


Sometimes in the world of filmmaking, special effect technicians end up making films. The thing about these special effects guys is that they got the knowhow and experience on the technical side of filmmaking. Since they are working in the filmmaking environment all the time, they also got the all important connections to get their ideas made into films. What happens is that since they are responsible for these cool effects sequences in so many movies; they convince producers that they can pull off a good movie, and so their project gets greenlit. The result of having special effects guys making films is that the film will have good looking monsters and visual effects, but bad acting and storytelling. Examples of this are films like Spawn (1997), Virus (1999) and Eragon (2006). These are all films with decent make up and visual effects, but they are also films that suffer from bad storytelling and acting. The main problem with this sort of film is that the filmmakers’ behind them are not storytellers by nature, they are not directors in the true sense of the word, more often then not, these are guys who care more about things looking cool than things making sense. Fx technicians aid the director in bringing his or her vision to life and most of the time they are good at their job, but the truth is that they are not good storytellers or directors. This is the case with The Guyver, a film that is entertaining, fast paced and has excellent looking creatures and make up effects, but suffers from terrible acting. Was it totally unwatchable?

The Guyver tells the story of Sean Barker, a teenager who stumbles upon an alien weapon that turns its wielder into a bio-mechanical weapon. Sean doesn’t know this at first. He believes he’s simply found some weird looking mechanical device, but not an alien armor. So one thing leads to another and Sean ends up becoming one with the Guyver Unit! Now he can fight bullies and stop evil alien corporations from taking over the world at the same time. Bonus! Meanwhile, an alien being known as Fulton Balcus is searching for the Guyver Unit so that he can wear it and become even more powerful so that he can conquer the world and all that. Will Balcus ever come to posses the Guyver Unit? Will Sean become the hero he must become and save the day?

So this film had not one, but two directors! And both of them are guys with vast experience in make up effects work, including sculpting, painting and even art direction. This is the reason why the monsters in the film look so cool. This is the reason why The Guyver itself looks so kick ass; one look at the creatures in this film and its obvious these guys know what they are doing when it comes to creature effects. Reportedly, there are over 50 creature effects in this film! From the very beginning, you’ll see people transforming into monsters. And from the moment when the good guys infiltrate the evil Cronos Corporations’ headquarters forward, you’ll see nothing but monsters. This is totally understandable because collectively, these two directors have been responsible for some pretty cool creatures and make up effects sequences, amongst them the alien in Predator (1987), The Gillman from Monster Squad (1987), The Cockroach Transformation sequence in A Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Master (1988). They’ve also worked in one way or another in make up effects heavy films like Harry and the Hendersons (1987), Godzilla (1998), Bride of Re-Animator (1990), Faust: Love of the Damned (200), Beyond Re-Animator (2003), Necronomicon (1993) and Arena (1989) amongst many others. So these guys are good when it comes to making monsters on a tight budget and even more so when they are given money.

Steve Wang sculpts a creature for Guyver: Dark Hero

The Guyver is the kind of film where make up effects guys like Wang and George are given free reign to just go crazy and do whatever the hell they can come up with, which must be a make up effects technician’s wet dream. It reminded me of a similar film called Robert Kurtzman's The Rage (2007) yet another film in which a make up effects technician was given the opportunity to direct a film and just go nuts with it. The Rage was also a make up effects technicians’ orgasm. So anyways, The Guyver was produced by Brian Yuzna, a producer/director who has been responsible for many straight to dvd horror and science fiction films. I guess he can be compared to Roger Corman in that way, producing horror films till the day they die! You’ve probably heard about some of Yuzna’s projects: Faust: Love of the Damned (2000), the entire Re-Animator franchise, Dagon (2001), Return of the Living Dead III (1993), he even produced the theatrically released Honey I Shrunk the Kids (1989) for Disney if you can believe it. But as you can see, he’s a lover of sci-fi/horror. Yuzna’s involvement is the reason why Screaming Mad George and Steve Wang directed The Guyver. They did a lot of make up effects work on many of Yuzna’s own films. This is also the reason why we see David Gale and Jeffrey Combs on this film; they’ve worked with Yuzna and Stuart Gordon many times on the Re-Animator films. So the people behind this film, from actors, to producer and directors all love science fiction and monster movies. There is a genuine love for the genre involved here.

The 'Lisker' creature from The Guyver

The film moves fast, things are never boring and the monster transformations and creatures keep things interesting and fun. The only real negative point on this film is the terrible acting from Vivian Wu, the Chinese actress who plays the daughter of a scientist experimenting with genetics for the Cronos Corporation, she’s so bad on this one that you have to see it to believe it. Incredibly enough, this actress is still making films today! She probably hates this film though cause she’s the worst thing in it. The same can be said for Greg Paik, the young actor who played Sean Barker/The Guyver. His performance is extremely wooden; thankfully he is wearing The Guyver suit most of the time. The film has one of the signs that let’s you know it is a straight to video feature; it has an ex A-list actor in a smaller roll, though by looking at the films poster, you might get the idea that Mark Hamill is the main actor in the film and that it is he who transforms into The Guyver, but alas, that’s just tricky advertisement to make you think Luke Skywalker is The Guyver, which he isnt. Hamill plays a cop investigating all the mysterious deaths surrounding the Cronos Corporation. It’s kind of sad to see a ex-A-list actor doing an extremely low budget movie like this one, but hey, I commend him because he went all out on this one! Not gonna spoil it for those of you who haven’t seen the film, but he has a pretty cool moment. I guess if you have Mark Hamill in your movie, you are contractually obligated to give him a stand out sequence.

All in all, The Guyver is a fun movie to watch. I recommend it to those who enjoy Japanese animated films. This is after all a film that is based on a Japanese animated series called The Guyver: Bio-Boosted Armor, which I might add comes highly recommended from this Film Connoisseur. It is even gorier than the movie, which ended up being less gory than it should have been so it could retain its PG-13 rating. I also recommend this flick to comic book fans, since it is essentially a comic book come to life. What is The Guyver if not a superhero? When he transforms he says “I-am- THE GUYVER!” When he first transforms into The Guyver it’s in this clichéish sequence where the hero is bullied by a bunch of criminals and the violent event triggers his transformation. The film also has transitions that come by the way of a bolt of lightning that appears on the screen, like I said a comic book movie through and through. But of course, the ones that will love this movie the most are all thoe monster lovers out there! If you love your monsters, and you love gooey effects and aliens…you will be in heaven! You just have to survive the wooden acting and bad dialog. But still, a fun ride is guaranteed! This film was followed by a superior sequel (directed by Steve Wang) called Guyver: Dark Hero (1994), I’ll be reviewing that one soon!  

Rating: 3 out of 5 


Thursday, December 15, 2011

Shaolin (2011)

Title: Shaolin (2011)

Director: Benny Chan

Cast: Andy Lau, Jackie Chan


Ever seen one of those really cheep Kung Fu movies? I mean ultra cheap stuff like The Crippled Masters (1979)? Those movies can be a hell of a lot fun to watch, but their budgetary restraints betray them sometimes. These movies are filled with good Kung Fu action, but are also usually accompanied by bad acting, cheap sets and fake backgrounds. Shaolin, the film I’ll be reviewing today, is the complete opposite of that; its one big, expensive, epic Kung Fu movie! Last time I saw an Asian movie of this magnitude was The Curse of the Golden Flower (2006), one of my favorite Chinese movies ever. It’s just so damn epic and beautiful to look at; to top things off, Chow Yun Fat steals the show as Emperor Ping! Highly recommend that one if you haven’t already seen it. But back to the topic at hand, Shaolin (a.k.a. The New Shaolin Temple) is somewhere along the lines of Curse of the Golden Flower in terms of quality and scale. It’s big, it’s epic, and it’s emotional, and has awesome Kung Fu action!  

 Shaolin tells the story of an Evil Warlord named General Hou Jie. He is fighting against other warlords in China, taking over lands and all that. He has an enormous army that obeys his every whim and desire. Opposite General Hou are the monks of the Shaolin Temple. If you know anything about Shaolin Monks, then you know that they are all about peace, and helping their fellow man. At heart, Shaolin Monks are portrayed as humanitarians in many films. They also train in martial arts a.k.a. Kung Fu, but this does not mean that they are violent people. They will do everything in their power to avoid violence and fighting. Their purpose in life is to help others, no matter their political or religious background. To the Shaolin Monks, a human is a human, and we should all help each other because it is their belief that all life is sacred. The real problem comes when the Shaolin Monks begin to aid enemies of General Hou Jie, who arrive at the temple looking for a helping hand. General Hou sees this as an act of treason and invades the temple, looking to give the Shaolin Monks a lesson. Will the monks change their ways? Will General Hou ever learn the value of human life?

 So I loved this movie for many reasons, first of which is that it takes the evil Warlord and shows him some humility. Sometimes governments can act cold and cruelly towards their people. Since they are so high up, “the people” are nothing but a workforce to them, a side note in their all important powerful lives. The people are the “little people”. Their pleads, not to be heard. And should anyone oppose, well, they die. But what would happen if the selfish and powerful political leader where to trade places with the people he rules over? What if he was to loose all his power, and taught a thing or two about what it means to work for your food, to suffer poverty, to care for your fellow man? What if they were taught somehow to be humble and caring instead of cold and greedy? These are the questions that this film asks and answers and I loved that about Shaolin. It’s the kind of movie that speaks for the people. It reminded me in many ways of Takashi Miike’s recent 13Assassins (2011), in which the Samurais gang up to bring the evil ruler to his knees. In 13 Assassins the Samurais speak with the tyrant face to face, letting him know all the mistakes his made while in government. In Shaolin, the greedy government is humbled down.

 Aside from that, there’s the Shaolin Temple, which is a wonder all on its own. I’ve always liked the idea of the Shaolin Temple a lot because it’s this magical place where love, humility, respect and selflessness is taught. But the Shaolin Temple does not train cowards; the monks also train in martial arts, for if their peaceful way of life is ever threatened, well then a good ass kicking is on your way. It’s a fantastic idea, the Shaolin Temple is a place where you can live a good, peaceful life, where you can find food and shelter, not unlike some churches of the world. The Shaolin Monks worship their god in peace and care for their fellow man. I respect that. I can see why the government of those days would hate the Shaolin Temple. The Shaolin way of life was always in discordance with the evil Warlords that governed in those days. Those Warlords only cared about conquering, killing and destroying anything in their path. So the monks of the temple and their governments where always in contrast with each other; one side loves and respects life, while the other seeks to destroy it. There are some really tense moments in this movie, when the Warlord invades the temple that are awesome! The monks literally  protect their way life with their advanced Kung-Fu skills! Some of the monks go no their own personal Robin Hood like quest and deside to become bandits in the name of the people. Stealing or “borrowing” from the rich to give to the poor.

The production values for this movie were really good! They didn’t use the real Shaolin Temples because they didn’t want to damage them while making the film so they did the next best thing, they built their own Shaolin Temple! The sets on this movie are pretty impressive; I love it when they go all out like that. Same thing happened with Curse of the Golden Flower where they built these amazingly expensive sets. Chinese filmmakers have that about them; they really go all out with their movies, when they have the funding for it, they really give it their all to make a special film, and this is a fine example of that. Also, they don’t skimp on running time for their films; this is not the first Chinese film I see that lasts more than two hours! But honestly, I didn’t care how long it was because ultimately I was devouring everything I was seeing on screen.  

Jackie Chan makes an appearance in this movie as the cook of the Shaolin Temple, he plays more than just a cameo, but his character was obviously kind of tacked onto the film to attract more people into the seats, the movie could have easily moved on without his character. But, Chan does this a lot, he makes small appearances in films. On Shaolin he plays a cook who’s never left the Shaolin Temple, but has desires to go out and see the world, yet he hesitates in doing it. I liked the idea behind his character. This is a guy who’s been doing the samething all his life, and now he is aching to go out and see the world. This character spoke about breaking with a comfort zone and going out and doing what you’ve always wanted to do with your life, so it’s kind of like a side story, but it’s a good one. Still, Chan has his chance to Kung Fu fight in one sequences that is inventive and entertaining, Chan uses cooking techniques to fight against the invading army!

 This film was a huge money maker all over China, it premiered number one at the box office in Hong Kong and broke box office records in Malaysia. The film was directed by Benny Chan, the same director behind Jackie Chan’s New Police Story (2004), a explosion filled action film that I highly recommend, actually New Police Story has one of the biggest explosions I’ve ever seen on any movie! Ever! Recommend that one if your in the mood for some high octane action. I was not aware of this when I watched it, but Shaolin is a remake of a Jet Li film called The Shaolin Temple (1982), which by the way was Jet Li’s debut role, I’ve never seen that one, but now I’m looking for it. This version stars Andy Lau, one of China’s biggest movie stars in the role of General Hou Jie. Bottom line with Shaolin is that it’s lavish and emotional and action packed: highly recommend this must-see Kun Fu blockbuster!

Rating: 5 out of 5  

Monday, December 12, 2011

True Legend (2010)

Title: True Legend (2010)

Director: Yuen Woo Ping


In the world of Kung Fu Movies, we have two kinds of films: those that stick close to reality and those that go completely out there and get all wrapped up in Chinese fantasy and folklore. This is not surprising considering how rich Chinese cultures is with all it’s myths, gods, and ghosts. These are really my favorite type of Kung Fu flick because I am a huge fan of fantasy films; I love ‘em to death. I guess it’s the escapist element that I love about them. I love how you can completely immerse yourself in a fantastical world that the filmmakers have created, if they do it right of course. True Legend got it right, in my opinion!

Funny thing about this Kung Fu flick is that it polarized audiences. Chinese audiences apparently hated this one; some going as far as calling it one of the worst Kung Fu movies ever made.  The film didn’t make its 20 million budget back. It was a major failure in its home country. Yet in a strange turn of events, American audiences embraced the film, calling it an instant cult classic when it was recently released on dvd. I guess Chinese people have seen so many martial arts films; that when a generic one comes along, they instantly deem it as “terrible”. I understand what they mean about that. I did find True Legend to be like so many other films that came before it. It was like a mixture of Jackie Chan’s Drunken Master (1978), like Donnie Yen’s Ip Man (2008) and every other Kung Fu movie in which the hero gets the hell kicked out of him, only to go through a training and “resurrection” process, until, blamo! He’s ready for revenge! Then it’s all about that final showdown between good and evil. This was also the basic plot for Stephen Chow’s Kung Fu Hustle (2004), another excellent Kung Fu film I highly recommend.

What happens with most movies is that they feed off of each other and at times feel repetitive. I think that is unavoidable, especially in the world of genre films where films have to stick to a certain type of structure. So given the repetitive nature of these films, what matters then is how you tell your story and taking care to add those little touches that make it different. The most innovative element for me on this one was a character called Yuan Ying, the main villain. He’s an evil ruler, with zombie white flesh and an armor sewed onto his skin. The coolest thing is that his special iron skin makes him partially invulnerable during sword fights! This was just an awesome idea and a cool visual as well. To top things off, Yuan Ying has this ability to absorb venom from scorpions onto his hands, and then through his Kung Fu blows, he transmits said venom onto his opponent! The villain is the most memorable thing about the film.

The good guy, a character called Su Can is one tainted with tragedy in his life. His life is so filled with sorrow, that some think he has gone mad! The best part about this character is that he gets trained by the ‘God of Wushu’ himself! Problem is that since he trains with this God in his mind, others think he is crazy when they see him fighting by himself. The training sequences with the God of Kung Fu were awesome and outlandish; they fight on top of giant statues and mystical landscapes. Then, Su Can goes through another phase in which he learns Drunken Boxing, which is a Martial Arts technique in which the fighter fights as if he was drunk. In some films about Drunken Boxing, the practitioner of Drunken Boxing actually gets drunk and fights this way. The drunken state is supposed to augment his fighting ability and looseness during the fight. Last time I saw this was in Jackie Chan’s Legend of Drunken Master (1994), which by the way, in my opinion is Jackie Chan’s best film. When you see the Drunken Boxing sequences in True Legend, you’ll be reminded of Jackie Chan’s Drunken Master movies. This makes perfect sense when we take in consideration that the director behind True Legend is martial art choreographer Yuen Woo Ping, who got one of his first directing credits in 1978, when he directed Jackie Chan in the first Drunken Master film. Yuen Woo Ping is a legend of Kung Fu movies; he’s choreographed/directed so many memorable ones! He’s even choreographed scenes for Tarantino’s Kill Bill: Vol. II (2004). So hey, at least you know you have a master martial arts choreographer working out the Kung Fu moves on this film.

Yuen Woo Ping (right) choreographs a scene

This film was promoted in China as being “the first Chinese 3-D film ever”, sadly even with that gimmick attached to it the film tanked at the box office. American audiences are only discovering it now that’s it’s been release on DVD. I personally though the movie was entertaining even though it was similar to other films that came before it. I enjoyed the fantasy elements, the fights, the effects, but I also enjoyed the emotion behind the story. At its core this is a film about a father protecting his family from an intruder who wants to defile the purity and love of the family unit. True, the film does pay more attention to the Kung Fu choreography than to character development, but this is far from being one a bad Kung Fu movie.  I’d recommend it if you want to see a big budget Kung Fu Flick with tons of action! It might be formulaic, but it didn’t skimp on production values, style and entertainment. A highlight of the film is a fight that takes place on a platform, next to a real life roaring waterfall! They really filmed in that location, and they used the real actors hanging from cables, the results were impressive! I also liked the action sequence that opens the movie. It’s a scene where Su Can invades an enemy fortress to rescue a queen…amazing action and martial arts choreography right there. So in spite of True Legend’s ‘flaws’ I would say that it will become a cult classic, sure to be enjoyed by many Kung Fu fans for generations to come.

Rating: 4 out of 5  

The God of Wushu


Related Posts with Thumbnails