IT CAME FROM ASIAN CINEMA: THE COLLABORATIONS OF KEITA AMEMIYA AND YÛKO MORIYAMA

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THE COLLABORATIONS OF KEITA AMEMIYA AND YÛKO MORIYAMA

Keita Amemiya is an artist and designer who got a start writing and directing for TV before breaking into feature filmmaking in 1988 with Murai Ninja, a film that was a mash-up of ancient Japan sword epic and Star Wars-esque sci-fi flick. The film showed evidence of a director still in need of some experience at the helm, but it also had a unique look and design that displayed some interesting potential. Amemiya lived up to that potential in 1991 with the now cult classic Alien, The ThingTerminator, hybrid Zeiram and hasn’t stopped working since.

Yûko Moriyama was a Japanese TV and movie actress who had a brief acting career from 1991 to 2000. She was very pretty and only five foot four, but could convey a toughness and strength that made her believable as an action star. She worked for Keita Amemiya in three films ranging from 1991 to 1997, including his breakaway hit, Zeiram. In all three she played women warriors and that seemed to get her typecast as such for the rest of her short career. She made an impression, however, that has earned her cult status despite acting for less than a decade.

Zeiram had a beautiful bounty hunter from space coming to earth to hunt a biological weapon which could absorb the genetic material of victims and use it to it’s advantage. That beautiful bounty hunter was named Iria and played by the adorable yet tough Yûko Moriyama, who was twenty-three at the time and it was her first feature film. The flick became an instant fan favorite with it’s live action anime style and the incredible creatures, costumes and gadgets from the mind of Amemiya. It also made an instant cult star out of Moriyama, whose Iria had the beauty of a Japanese anime girl and the kick-ass combat skills of Natasha Romanov. The FX were quite good for a low budget flick, ranging from animation to prosthetics to old fashioned stop-motion. There was plenty of action and the film is now considered a cult classic of Japanese fantasy/sci-fi cinema.

Three years later Amemiya brought his genetic horror back and his leading lady with him, as Iria returned to Earth to battle another Zeiram creature, this time infused into a combat robot. Her A.I. partner Bob was back, too, as well as, her bungling earth sidekicks Teppei (Kunihiro Ida) and Kamiya (Yukijiro Hotaru). Zeiram 2 wisely kept it fresh by having a different look and abilities for it’s title creature and for Iria as well. The sequel once again featured the stunning and unique design work of it’s visionary director and the traditional genre mixing action. Moriyama was sexy and cool as Iria and while the film didn’t quite live up to it’s predecessor, it is still an action-packed, fun flick with the trademark look of an Amemiya film and with bounty hunter Iria being kick-ass as ever. Unfortunatley for fans, it would be another three years before director and actress would team again…

The artistic director and his leading lady worked together one last time, but sadly not a third go around for his heroine from space, Iria and her arch enemy. Moon Over Tao took place in feudal Japan with an object falling to earth that contains a hideous and almost indestructible creature that would kill anything it crosses paths with if unleashed. The ever-pretty Moriyama plays not one, but three alien women, Abira, Marien and Kuzto, who all have come to Earth to reclaim the object for their own personal reasons. The actress doesn’t disappoint, being beautiful and badass as usual. Amemiya would provide yet another entertaining genre mash-up with three times the Moriyama. The flick is a gory good time and once agin has some very unique design work, but still doesn’t quite equal the fun and action of his 1991 cult classic. 

Keita Amemiya continues to write, direct and design for films, TV and video games to this day. Moriyama apparently retired from acting after 2000 with her final film being a Hong Kong flick set partially in Japan called Tokyo Raiders. The actress is still a cult favorite among fans for her portrayal of Iria and it’s disappointing that she left acting so soon and never reunited with Amemiya at least one more time to make the Zeiram flicks a trilogy. Their collaborations are available on DVD and for those looking for more, there was a Zeiram animated prequel series that brought the titular creature and a younger Iria back, though Amemiya and Moriyama were not involved.

(You can read my full reviews for their three collaborations by clicking the highlighted titles, or on the movie posters above -MZNJ)

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 -MonsterZero NJ

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REVIEW: THE LOVE WITCH (2016)

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THE LOVE WITCH (2016)

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The Love Witch is a delightful and colorful throwback to the erotic pulp witchcraft and romance flicks of the 60s, perfectly imitating the technicolor look and style. It tells the story of lovelorn witch Elaine Parks (Samantha Robinson) who turned to witchcraft after her devastating divorce. She now uses love spells to lure her men, though these spells usually result in a tragic death for the current object of her affections. A rookie police detective (Gian Keys) is hot on her trail, but will the handsome policeman be the next to fall victim to Elaine’s supernatural charms?

Filmmaker Anna Biller proves quite the workaholic by producing, writing and directing this charming and sexy homage, while designing the nostalgic 60s costumes and sets as well. The result is not only an incredible recreation of a long gone era of filmmaking, but deftly mixes in some feminist messages about the power of a woman’s sexuality and the depth of a man’s fear of it. The film is loaded with colorful characters, some very spicy sex and of course, plenty of spells and witchcraft, as our Elaine goes from one man to another, leaving a trail of bodies, until she meets Det. Griff Meadows…could he finally be the one? It’s a spooky and sexy ride to find out and while there are those who may not appreciate the moderate pacing, it matches the type of films it pays tribute to perfectly. Anna Biller displays both a creative talent and a deep love for her influences that are reason enough to watch this flick alone. It also has generous helpings of sex, nudity…and even a pinch of bondage…with a bit of blood spattering just as in the trashy, fun flicks this film embraces the style of. At the same time, it also succeeds in telling the story of a women in search of love and finding her own sexuality, but all with a vengeance.  It’s wrapped in a package of sumptuous cinematography by M. David Mullen and told with the performance style and dialog of a bygone era that is all but lost. It’s not perfect. It’s a tad too long at two hours, a Renaissance Fair sequence in particular seems to drag on, but otherwise this a really enjoyable tale of female empowerment and a creatively crafted love letter to the pulp/witchcraft films of the 60s.

The cast all get the material perfectly. Lead Samantha Robinson is both stunningly beautiful and a captivating actress in a performance that oozes sexuality and mystery. She delivers the deliberately stylized performance as if time was turned back fifty years and does so with a charm and charisma of a star in the making. Her Elaine is enchantress, seductress and 60s housewife with a vengeance, all in one. Gian Keys also captures the tone of the heroic leads of that era with his rookie detective who falls for his #1 suspect. He is both charming and a bit arrogant. There is also Laura Waddell as Elaine’s new friend Trish. Trish is a perky girl next door type who seems a bit naive to Elaine’s witchy ways, till her own man is stolen by the enchantress. We also have good work by Jeffrey Vincent Parise as a teacher and Robert Seeley as Trish’s husband, both victims of Elaine’s quest for love.

Overall, I enjoyed this movie a lot for not only it’s tribute to an almost lost style of filmmaking, but for the story of a woman coming into her own sexual power, though with a deadly side effects towards her pursuits. Anna Biller shows she is a creative force to be reckoned with, much like her Elaine in some ways, by being a one woman studio on this spooky, sexy and fun flick. Both a filmmaker and lead actress to keep an eye on!

-MonsterZero NJ

3 and 1/2 cards of love.

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REVIEW: THE EDGE OF SEVENTEEN (2016)

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THE EDGE OF SEVENTEEN (2016)

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Nadine Franklin (Hailee Steinfeld) has always walked to the beat of her own drum…and it hasn’t made life any easier when it comes to school and making friends. Her dad was one of the only people she felt understood her and he passed away four years earlier. She is jealous over her super popular older brother, Darian (Blake Jenner), especially when her one and only friend, Krista (Haley Lu Richardson) starts dating him. Feeling betrayed, Nadine sets out to find her place in the world with a little help from her cynical teacher, Mr. Bruner (Woody Harrelson) and Erwin, a nerdy classmate (Hayden Szeto) who might be what she’s been looking for all along, but is too absorbed in her own drama to notice.

Written and directed by Kelly Fremon Craig, this is a poignant, feisty and sometimes very funny coming of age story with a firecracker performance from it’s leading lady. One of the things that makes this comedy/drama so enjoyable is that Craig uses the familiar tropes that we expect from these movies, yet keeps them fresh, so they don’t quite come across as the well-worn clichés they are. Her script paints a portrait of a spirited and slightly eccentric young girl who is just trying to find her place. She doesn’t quite feel comfortable with most of her peers and is sort of left to wander once she feels she’s lost her best and only friend. Nadine embarks on a funny and heartfelt journey of discovery both in herself and in those around her. Sometimes what you are looking for is right in front of you and Nadine needs to find that out for herself. There are some very funny scenes and some well written and sometimes cleverly raunchy dialogue, especially for Steinfeld’s Nadine. If the film, stumbles a little it is that a scene where Nadine goes on a ‘date’ with a boy she’s crushing on, goes perhaps a tad too far in making it’s point that this guy isn’t what she needs. It’s a bit rough and uncomfortable and sticks out somewhat when the rest of the film had a nice balance to it between comedy and drama. Nadine also seemed a bit too smart to make such a dumb mistake and it seemed a little out of character for the socially inept girl even if she was confused and frustrated at this point. Despite some minor flaws this is a well written and directed tale of a young girl trying to become a young woman who remains herself, yet doesn’t feel so isolated in the world around her.

As for the actors, Craig gets good work from a good cast. Hailee Steinfeld gives a spunky and spirited performance as Nadine. The character of the sarcastic loner has been seen before, but Steinfeld injects her with her own personality and really plays well the emotional confusion of being at that age between teen and adulthood. She delivers the lines with a cynicism of an older person, yet portrays a girl not quite old enough to handle some of the things she’s feeling. At that age you overreact to some things and under-react to others and the script and actress nail that very well. Hailee Steinfeld is a star in the making. While it is a one woman show, to a degree, there is some great supporting work. Harrelson once again proves he has become one of the most consistent and durable actors around with his cynical, yet caring performance as Mr. Bruner, Nadine’s favorite teacher and the one she comes to when she needs guidance or someone to rant to. Harrelson deftly captures the balance of a man who knows that sometimes teens need to figure these things out for themselves and yet, sometimes they need a little help. Solid work from an actor who has become a reliable performer in a variety of roles. Kyra Sedgwick is good as Nadine’s self absorbed widow of a mom. She gives us a women who wants to have a better relationship with her daughter, but is frustrated as to how to achieve that. Hayden Szeto is charming and likable as Erwin, a boy Nadine befriends who is a quirky film nerd and may be what Nadine needs, if only she stopped looking past him to realize it. Haley Lu Richardson is likable as the Nadine’s best friend Krista, who is difficultly caught in the middle of Nadine and her brother when she starts dating her popular sibling. Rounding out is former Glee actor Blake Jenner, who adds some nice depth to what could have been the stereotypical popular jock as Nadine’s brother Darian. A very good cast that make a good script come to life.

Overall, I really enjoyed this coming of age flick for taking the clichés and adding a feisty coat of paint to them. It had some nice emotional depth, some heartfelt humor and some delightfully, witty dialogue, even when being a bit raunchy. It stumbles a bit with a scene that was maybe a bit too uncomfortable for it’s own good, but that sequence had a purpose and did serve it, thought bluntly. Otherwise filmmaker Kelly Fremon Craig delivered a spirited and empathetic movie in a film sub-genre that can be crass and crude while forgetting the emotional turmoil of this sensitive age…one thing The Edge Of Seventeen does not overlook.

-MonsterZero NJ

3 and 1/2 Nadines.

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REVIEW: A MONSTER CALLS (2016)

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A MONSTER CALLS (2016)

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Film by Orphanage director J. A. Bayona is the sad tale of Connor O’Malley (Lewis MacDougall) who is dealing with not only the terminal illness that is slowly taking his divorced mother (Felicity Jones) from him, but having to live with his stern grandmother (Sigourney Weaver) with whom he has a tenuous relationship, as well. His father is now living in the U.S. with his new family and he has no one to turn to…until a monster (voiced by Liam Neeson) appears and says he will tell Connor three stories, but only if the boy agrees to tell the fourth, which is to relate a reoccurring nightmare Connor is having. The boy reluctantly agrees, but soon finds these tales have more in common with his current situation than he could have imagined.

Flick is written by Patrick Ness based on his book that was inspired by writer Siobhan Dowd, who came up with the idea during her own illness, one she sadly did not live to write herself. It is excellently directed by Bayona, though is a very somber and sad story when all is said and done. The film certainly has a strong emotional core, as we watch a young boy trying to deal with the fact that his mother is dying and there is nothing he can do about it. Is the monster there as an imaginary way of sorting through his emotions, or an actual being only Connor can see, that is there to help the boy sort things out? Bayona and Ness aren’t eager top let us find out and the film does have a sort of magic because of it, despite the dour tone. Much like Orphanage J. A. Bayona gives this the feel of a sort of dark fairy tale and it boldly deals with the theme of a child facing the death of a loved one, without sugar coating it or giving it an unrealistic wrap up. That’s one of the things that also holds it back a bit, is that it is overall, a very sad film and contains some very serious subject matter despite having a young child as it’s central focus. On a production level, the FX are excellent, especially in the rendition of the tree-like monster, and the hand drawn illustrations that relate the creature’s tales are full of charm. The film has a wonderful visual style, that does not betray the serious tone, from the eye of it’s director. It also adds loads of atmosphere from Orphanage cinematographer Óscar Faura and an equally appropriate score from Orphanage composer Fernando Velázquez. A heartbreaking yet very well made film.

The cast also contributes much with exceptional performances all around. Young Lewis MacDougall is simply amazing with all the emotions he needs to convey as Connor. He presents a sweet natured young boy who must deal with a turmoil of feelings, including anger, with his mother slowly dying before his eyes and having to deal with both his stern grandmother and a bully at school, as well. The young actor is simply wonderful in a very emotionally heavy role. Felicity Jones will break your heart as the young mother trying to stay strong for her son. The actress gives a truly noble and endearing performance as a woman who will leave when she’s good and ready. Weaver is also very good as his grandmother. She’s is a tough women, but not a villain. Weaver let’s us see the pain she is in, watching her own child fading away and somehow having to deal with that and now raise her grandson. It’s a difficult place her character is in and while she may not handle every situation the right way, we do appreciate her position. Neeson, of course does top-notch work giving the monster both a nobility and a ferocity. He is a creature not without a bit of a heart, fierce as he can be. Neeson also appears in a photo as Connor’s grandfather who we assume is gone as well. Actor Tony Kebbell also has a minor role as Connor’s estranged dad.

In conclusion, this is a very well done and emotionally engaging movie. It is also, however, a very sad film and despite having a young boy as it’s focus, tackles that child facing some very adult decisions and emotions. The cast is exceptional and the film looks sumptuous and the movie works very well, despite it’s somber tone, thanks to a director who knows how to tell this kind of tale…with heart, albeit a broken one.

-MonsterZero NJ

3 and 1/2 books on which this film is based.

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REVIEW: UNDERWORLD: AWAKENING (2012)

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UNDERWORLD: AWAKENING (2012)

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As a fan of the Underworld series I was both eager and apprehensive about this 4th installment, but as the credits rolled I had a smile on my face and had a good time. For starters, Kate Beckinsale is back in black latex returning as Death Dealer Selene. The story opens as man has discovered both Lycan and vampire and Selene has been separated from Michael, captured and cryogenically frozen as the war to cleanse the world of these supernatural species is underway. When released 12 years later, Selene finds a police state where Lycan and vampire are all but extinct and she has a 12 year old daughter (India Eisley) who’s unique nature makes her central to a sinister experiment. To save her daughter and her people, Selene finds herself with unexpected enemies and allies and that’s just fine with her.

Flick is directed this time by the duo of Måns Mårlind and Björn Stein from a script written by four people, including original series director Len Wiseman. At barely 90 minutes Underworld: Awakening is all about the action and there is plenty of it. It slows down to give us some story here and there and is surprisingly good at utilizing the time to move it along without stoping the momentum and the film does move quite fast. Selene is thrust into doing what she does best quite regularly and it is fairly well staged and gruesome at times. The only real weakness here is the CGI which was never very strong in this series. Otherwise it’s a brisk, fast paced fun time which won’t convert any new fans, but should please those there are.

Beckinsale is once again sexy and lethal returning as Selene. We do wish we got to know some of the new character’s a bit better such as Charles Dance’s vampire elder, filling the void of Bill Nighy’s Victor and Steven Rea’s bad guy scientist with a secret, is a fairly generic villain. Theo James is handsome and noble as David and Michael Ealy is fine as a human cop who may possible be being set-up as a human love interest for Selene. Too early to tell. Rounding out is India Eisley who is impressive as the young hybrid daughter that is a chip off the old block.

There are enough gun fights, explosions, spurting blood and shots of Kate Beckinsale’s perfectly shaped black latex wrapped bottom to keep everyone well entertained till the final scene, which hints that the sexy and lethal vampiress may not be hanging up her guns, or fetish gear, quite yet. And that’s fine with me.

-MonsterZero NJ

3 fangs.

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REVIEW: UNDERWORLD: BLOOD WARS (2017)

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UNDERWORLD: BLOOD WARS (2017)

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At this point the makers of the Underworld series aren’t even trying to lure in new viewers, just keeping the loyal fan base of this franchise interested and happy. But even the most loyal viewer would have to admit that with this entry, entertaining as it may be, the saga is starting to run out of gas. Blood Wars finds vampire hottie, Selene (Kate Beckinsale) having abandoned her daughter, to keep her safe and now being pursued by Lycan and Vampire alike. The wolves want her hybrid daughter’s blood to become more formidable, to tip the scales in their war with the vampires. Vampire councilwoman Semira (Lara Pulver) wants the latex covered Selene’s powerful blood so she can overthrow her coven leaders and take over. Selene’s only allies are Vampire Elder, Thomas (Charles Dance) and his hunky son, David (Theo James), who gained heightened abilities when given some of sexy but dour Selene’s blood in Underworld: Awakening. Still with me? Of course new Lycan leader Marius (Tobias Menzies) is out eradicate the vampires once and for all and has some bloody secrets of his own to help him accomplish this and poor, curvy, quick-triggered Selene is caught in the middle of it all. What a bloody mess!

Fifth go-around is competently directed by newcomer Anna Foerster from a script and story by Cory Goodman and Kyle Ward and is entertaining enough to pass the time. You have to be a fan of this series to appreciate the theatrical melodrama mixed with bone crunching action, but even then, it’s getting far too familiar to really set this new chapter apart from the last one…or any of the others. The filmmakers have realized this stuff has more of a cult audience and this flick has half the budget of the previous flick and thus is smaller scaled and delivers far more of that melodrama than some of the previous entries. There is still a decent amount of action, though it is fairly by-the-numbers and is nothing beyond what we expect from this series by now. It’s in the Twilight-esque moments that the film is weakest, thought, thankfully, those moments are usually bookended with some blood-spattering as the rapid fire editing keeps things from stagnating and us from thinking too much about how silly it all is. That is also one of the film’s weaknesses as there is little time to let dramatic plot points resonate and sometimes the movie jumps forward a little too quick for it’s own good. Selene’s final confrontation with Marius is a good example, it’s just over too quickly to have impact, despite a shocking reveal in it’s midst. The editing can be choppy in spots, as if there was an effort to get to the action more quickly and the opening chase is hard to follow as a result of being a bit too rapidly cut…much like the opening chase in the James Bond epic A Quantum Of Solace. Foerster seems to have a good visual eye and the snow set scenes are especially eye-catching, but if the series is to continue…and there are indications it is going to…they need to really shake things up a bit and give the series some new blood…pun intended.

The cast all take this stuff very seriously and it helps us do the same. Beckinsale can basically play Selene in her sleep at this point and the story has her a bit more sullen than usual. Pouting over her lost daughter and love Michael (played in flashbacks by both original actor Scott Speedman and stand-in Trent Garrett, who looks nothing like him) Selene is quite the sourpuss here, although she still looks stunning in latex and seems to cheer up when blasting Lycans or ripping out their spines. Theo James is a fine hero as David. The actor does the vampire heartthrob thing adequately, although the character does seem to only have been added to lure in the Twilight crowd who have nothing new to watch. Charles Dance is regal and noble as Thomas. A class actor giving the role strength beyond the simple script. Tobias Menzies is menacing enough as Marius, though he could have used a bit more charisma and Lara Pulver gives leading lady Beckinsale a run for her sexy money as vampish vamp Semira.

Overall, the movie did entertain, but only for fans who have enjoyed the previous flicks and are forgiving to the familiar material. Even so, the series needs some freshness injected into it or it may start to lose even it’s most loyal followers. Perhaps have Beckinsale’s Selene pass the torch to her wayward daughter and let mom’s latex covered buns only cameo, because, to be honest, we’d miss those latex covered buns if they were gone completely…after all, bullets, blood and buns is why we watch these movies.

-MonsterZero NJ

3 fangs for fans only.

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REVIEW: UNCLE NICK (2015)

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UNCLE NICK (2015)

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Nick (Brian Posehn) is a down-on-his-luck slob who has been in a slump since loosing the love of his life, Emily (Annie Savage in flashbacks) to an aneurism. He reluctantly runs the family landscaping business while his younger brother Cody (Beau Ballinger) seems to get all the breaks. Case in point, Cody has recently married wealthy older woman Sophie (Paget Brewster) and lives in her luxurious home while doing little work for a living. They have invited Nick and sister Michelle (Missi Pyle) over for Christmas dinner and the only reason Nick is going, is to try to score with Cody’s hot and flirty twenty year-old step-daughter Valerie (Melia Renee). But with his jealousy and bitterness over his brother’s fortune bubbling to the surface, this could be a Christmas none of them will ever forget.

Ohio set Christmas comedy is rude, crude and has it’s share of dark humor, but is actually funny at times, too as directed by Chris Kasick from Mike Demski’s script. The story of the slobs vs the snobs, the train wreck character having his day and the Christmas dinner turned disaster, have all been done before, but the formula works fairly well here thanks to some legitimate laughs and a few moments of surprising sentimentality as when Nick relays during dinner the discovery of Emily’s body upon waking up. There are some very cliché moments, too, such as Nick finally getting his moment with the vixenish Valerie, but doing the noble thing, only to find out Cody is having an affair with her, under his new wife’s nose. Again, we’ve seen it all before, but writer Demski does come up with some funny bits and Cody is such a douche that we side with the oafish Nick even when he is wallowing in self-pity. The film also uses an interesting framework of being told in nine sections each in comparison to an inning in the June 4th, 1974 “Ten Cent Beer Night” Indians/Rangers baseball game that ended in a riot. This bit of cleverness does add an interesting slant as Nick relates the tale of that infamous ballgame, inning by inning, which echoes how his Christmas dinner outing is playing out. Maybe the only original thing the movie does, but it did add an interesting touch and was amusing in itself if nothing else.

The cast works well in portraying their misfit characters. There are some good performances here and Posehn’s deadpan delivery make a lot of the lines work better than they should. His Nick may be feeling sorry for himself, but Posehn does make him likable even with his boorish behavior and slightly creepy pursuit of his younger step-niece. As for that, there is a basic bond between the two that does work. Melia Renee is perfectly cast as the sexy, tease Valerie and the actress gives her a little depth beyond the kittenish behavior. There does seem to be an actual affection for Nick, who shares her dislike for her new family situation and she has moments where we understand her rebellious behavior. Sleeping with Cody is just a way to hurt her mother for divorcing her dad. The actress has sex appeal and a bit of a presence and it would be nice to see her in something else, such as final girl duty in a good slasher. Paget Brewster also gives what could have been a stereotypical rich shrew role…though to degree it still is…a bit more three dimensionality, especially after the film’s big family showdown. She’s a woman who may realize she was selfish in her decisions. Beau Ballinger is fine as douche Cody, his role is shortchanged of any sort of depth in the writing, but the character works as it’s supposed to. The rest of the cast are fine from Pyle’s, oddball sister to Scott Adsit as her clueless companion and Jacob Houston as Sophie’s teen son Marcus.

The film doesn’t have much in terms of originality, but does have some laughs and there are some moments of depth character-wise through all the smoking, drinking and cursing the main protagonists do. The actors are fine and lead Posehn has a solid deadpan delivery to get some extra milage out of the lines. It may be a forgettable comedy when all is said and done, but an amusing enough holiday diversion to add to your list of Christmas-in-ruins flicks, if that’s your thing.

-MonsterZero NJ

3 christmas trees.

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REVIEW: ROGUE ONE: A STAR WARS STORY (2016)

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ROGUE ONE: A STAR WARS STORY (2016)

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Simply put, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story is the best Star Wars movie since The Empire Strikes Back. The film does have a few flaws, but the last act is some of the best Star Wars you’ll see and some of the most exciting action in the saga’s illustrious 40 year history. It feels far more like a Star Wars film than J.J. Abrams’ weak and disappointing Force Awakens. Film is a prequel that tells the story of The Rebellion’s discovery that The Empire is building a super weapon that we fans will come to know and love as The Death Star. The film traces the efforts to get to a key scientist, Gaylen Erso (Mads Mikkelsen), who is reluctantly working on the project and has warned them of it’s creation. They do this by tracking down and freeing his rebellious daughter, Jyn (Felicity Jones) from an imperial prison and sending her on a mission with a rag tag group of rebels to find him and discover a weakness in this weapon of mass destruction. Circumstances then lead Jyn and company to go against rebel command orders and infiltrate an imperial outpost and steal the plans for this planet killer, all the while with the Death Star’s project director Orson Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn) in hot pursuit.

Flick is well directed by Gareth Edwards (Godzilla) who brings far more of a Star Wars feel to this than the mediocre Force Awakens, even with it’s darker and edgier tone and new characters. The script by Chris Weitz and Tony Gilroy creates a story about incidents mentioned briefly in a few of the previous flicks, yet integral to A New Hope’s classic climax ever occurring. The story also gives us the opportunity to revisit some familiar faces, such as Bail Organa (Jimmy Smits) Mon Mothma (Genevieve O’Reilly), an incredible CGI Grand Moff Tarkin (voiced by Stephen Stanton) and Darth Vader himself (James Earl Jones returns to voice while Spencer Wilding wears the suit), aside from creating a group of new and very endearing characters such as Jyn, rebel officer Cassian Andor (Diego Luna), smart aleck robot K-2SO (Alan Tudyk) and Hong Kong cinema legend Donnie Yen as blind warrior Chirrut Îmwe, who is like a Shaolin Monk who follows The Force. And it’s these endearing new faces that give Rogue One some nice emotional depth that the series hasn’t had in quite some time. The film also takes us to new places that actually look like alien worlds unlike Force Awakens’ dull settings and the action is fast and furious, especially in the amazing last act. If the film has any flaws, it’s that the first half sometimes appears a bit choppy and rushed as it races to the spectacular second half, but the climax is so exciting that you can forgive a slightly uneven start. And that’s what makes this work so well and where director Edwards really shines, is that he makes the last act so incredibly suspenseful, even though we know it’s outcome, as this is a set-up for the climax of Episode IV after all. But we like this motley band of rebels so much and the action presented so well, that we are on the edge of our seats rooting for them as they go up against incredible odds by entering a hornets nest to retrieve those now legendary Death Star plans. The film has one of the most effecting endings of any Star Wars film and leaves us at a point that will have fans in Force induced elation, while leaving not a dry eye in the theater. The SPFX representing this story are impeccable, in recreating ships and places both familiar and new and Michael Giacchino gives us an original score which still evokes a Star Wars film, even without the magnificent work of maestro John Williams.

Character-wise, the film is filled with endearing new additions to the series canon, with Felicity Jones carrying the film well on her petite shoulders as Jyn. She is a true heroine in the Star Wars mold, strong, rebellious and intelligent and Jones really makes her memorable and proves herself quite an action hero and a certified star. Diego Luna is likable as Captain Cassian Andor, rebel intelligence officer and the man sent to command this desperate mission. He isn’t quite as strong as his leading lady and does get overshadowed by she and some of the supporting cast, such as Donnie Yen, who is a delight as the scene stealing Chirrut Îmwe and his compatriot Baze Malbus, a mercenary played with charisma by Jiang Wang. Mendelsohn also makes a great bad guy and his leering menace makes him a good fit along with Vader and Tarkin, who he holds his own with. A strong villain always makes a flick like this work better and Krennic is a good villain. If any character is underdeveloped and weak it’s Forest Whitaker’s Saw Gerrera, a warrior and friend of Gaylen Erso, who has an air of nobility and mystery, but we never really get to know him very well before the character is left behind in the action. It’s a shame, as he was intriguing and Whitaker was good in a different role for the versatile actor. As for Mikkelsen, his Gaylen Erso has brief screen time, but the actor makes an impression as he always does…and let’s not forget the voice work of the talented Alan Tudyk as smart-ass droid K-2SO.

A few flaws early on in the pacing and flow of the film aside, this is simply one of the best of the Star Wars films. True it’s not technically part of the main series, but it’s a spin-off that carries the best of what this series is so beloved for. It has noble heroes, spectacular action, vile villains and a wonderful sense of nostalgia that The Force Awaken’s just didn’t have. It has a strong Star Wars feel, despite a darken and edgier tone and a last act that is simply some of the best action and suspense this series has yet to offer. It gives us some great new characters, while presenting the return of some classic characters, both expected and not. We are treated to a story that sets a major part of Episode IV in motion and leaves us at a truly euphoric moment in Star Wars history, even after giving us a sequence that will leave nary a dry eye in the house. One of the best films of 2016 and one of the best films of the entire Star Wars series.

-MonsterZero NJ

3 and 1/2 Death Stars.

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IT CAME FROM ASIAN CINEMA: THE WHITE HAIRED WITCH OF LUNAR KINGDOM (2014)

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THE WHITE HAIRED WITCH OF LUNAR KINGDOM (2014)

Chinese fantasy romance has a bit of a complicated story as it presents it’s tale of Lian Nishang (Bingbing Fan) who is a witch, known to the people in her surrounding kingdom as Jade Rakshasa, a Robin Hood like outlaw who protects the poor. She lives in a mountaintop fortress called Fort Luna and has shunned love until she meets handsome Zhou Yihang (Huang Xiaoming). Yihang is a Wudang priest who has recently become his sect’s leader and is treating the royal prince for an illness. When the prince is poisoned by an ambitious advisor, Yihang is blamed. When Nishang is defending some of her people, she is also framed for the murder of the local governor, who is Yihang’s grandfather…see, told you it would get complicated. Thrown together by fate, the priest and witch fall in love. But their romance is doomed to be a tragic one as murder, betrayal, treachery, witchcraft and an invading army stand in the way of true love.

The Chinese cinema has been churning movies out like this for decades, yet they still have yet to recapture the charm of the great Hong Kong revival of the 80s and early 90s. This flick is based on  Liang Yusheng’s Baifa Monü Zhuan, a novel which also served as the basis for the 1993 Hong Kong cinema classic The Bride With White Hair. This adaptation is directed by Jacob Cheung and credited to five writers, not that it’s a surprise considering how overloaded the story is. But Cheung still makes this a fairly entertaining flick with plenty of martial arts action and actually giving the romance between Yihang and Nishang some dramatic weight. The story may be overcomplicated, which is not rare with these types of films, but it still works to a good degree and Cheung and his army of writers do blend the melodrama, action and fantasy elements well enough that it doesn’t sink under the weight of all the plot details. Like most of these types of films, the action is staged well and the costumes and sets are quite extravagant. There are also some bloody moments as well and Ardy Lam does photograph the proceedings and settings quite sumptuously. Modern Hong Kong films have a tendency to overdo it with the CGI, but here it is used effectively and without relying too much on it as to make it overpowering. Hong Kong legend Tsui Hark serves as a consultant, which may be how the film does manage to juggle all it’s elements so well, as that was Hark’s forte as a filmmaker. Despite an overloaded story, White Haired Witch is still a fun movie, that may not be as charming as something like the classic, and far simpler, A Chinese Ghost Story, but certainly does still entertain.

The cast are all good and our leads, in particular help make this work. Bingbing Fan, who is known to American audiences for her appearance as Blink in X-Men: Days Of Future Past, is beautiful and enchanting as Lian Nishang. She is graceful in her action scenes and can project both a strength and a sensitivity whether she is defending her people or romancing Huang Xiaoming’s Wudan priest. As Zhuo Yihang, Huang Xiaoming is handsome, brave, noble and romantic. He makes a suitable suitor for Nishang and a suitable hero for our story. During a brief plot point of having to appear like he is betraying Nishing, the actor portrays well the pain in his eyes as he does so. The two actors have good chemistry together and it makes the romantic scenes warm and endearing and their relationship seems believable even with all the fantasy elements.

Overall, the film overcomes a very overcomplicated plot to still entertain. It has some beautiful fantasy imagery, some fun action sequences and a good cast to make the characters likable…or not, if in reference to our villains. Film would have benefited from a more streamlined storyline that could allow the centerpiece romance to have a bit more focus. It also could have left out some of the politics and a few extra and unnecessary characters, such as a solider and his little girl who don’t seem to serve a purpose. If you like the Hong Kong cinema or simply Asian martial arts period pieces, this is still worth your time and is never boring, though could have been something more special if not so cluttered.

-MonsterZero NJ

3 swords
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REVIEW: IN A VALLEY OF VIOLENCE (2016)

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IN A VALLEY OF VIOLENCE (2016)

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Western homage is written and directed by Ti West who is known for horror films like The House Of The Devil and the recent The Sacrament. This is a departure for West and shows he can do more than just horror with this tale of revenge. Flick has ex-soldier Paul (Ethan Hawke) wandering into the small town of Denton, New Mexico. He is just passing through, but in true western fashion, has an altercation with the town bully/deputy, Gilly (James Ransone). Paul is commanded to leave town by Gilly’s sheriff father (John Travolta), but is pursued into the desert by Gilly and his thugs. Upon being ambushed, his beloved dog, Abbie is murdered and Paul himself left for dead. Surviving Gilly’s attempt at payback, the lone drifter heads back to Denton with death and revenge on his mind.

In A Valley Of Violence may not be perfect, but it is a fun homage to both spaghetti and American westerns. Ti West creates a classic drifter in Paul, a man who grew tired of killing Native Americans senselessly and left the army behind, too ashamed to return home to his own family. He wants no more to do with death, but is forced by the slimy Gilly and his father into picking up gun and knife once more. We also get the classic love interest in young Mary-Anne (Taissa Farmiga) who happens to be the sister of Gilly’s fiancé, Ellen (Karen Gillan) and takes a shine to the handsome drifter. In telling this classic story, West’s horror background does come through. Paul uses an assortment of weapons to gain revenge, including gun, straight razor and bludgeoning a man with his own boot heel. The flashback to the Native American massacre the broke him down is also very reminiscent of his set up for the sacrifice scene in The House Of The Devil. This western is also a bloody one, thought he does not go overboard with it. If West stumbles a bit, it’s with the film’s odd sense of humor. It is a bit intrusive in a few spots such as during the climactic scenes with Paul stalking Sheriff Martin and his posse throughout the town. There are a couple of moments where some humorous dialogue interrupts the tension that West has built, such as after witnessing a cohort gunned down, one of Martin’s thugs (Tommy Nohilly) declares, in a rant, that he no longer wants to be called “Tubby”. The humor is blended fine most of the time, but here it seems to slow the momentum a bit and break the suspense. It doesn’t damage the film, but the climactic showdown could have been tighter and more tense. On a technical level the film looks good. Cinematographer Eric Robbins makes good use of the New Mexico locations and Jeff Grace gives it a homage filled western score that evokes Morricone at times.

West also gets good work out of an impressive cast. Hawke may be no Clint Eastwood, but he plays the tortured drifter very well. Paul is a man who has come to abhor violence, but is forced back into it, reluctantly, by the bully Gilly. His dog Abbie is the rock that what humanity he has left clings to and when she is taken, the killer is unleashed again. Hawke makes Paul likable, yet a bit distant and we do believe he is lethal when the time comes. Travolta is very good as Sheriff Martin. He plays him as not quite a bad guy, but obviously someone who lets his son and thugs have their way around town. He knows enough to not mess with the ex-soldier Paul, but sadly is not convincing enough to his son. As Gilly, James Ransone is appropriately slimy and full of himself. Gilly is a bit too much of a jerk to really be completely menacing and Ransone plays him as someone a bit too over confident to know when to quit. Taissa Farmiga is sweet and spirited as Mary-Anne, the lonely impressionable young girl who falls for Paul and Karen Gillan is also entertaining as her snooty sister Ellen, who is engaged to the bully Gilly. Indie flick icon Larry Fesenden also appears as one of Gilly’s three thugs along with Toby Huss and Tommy Nohilly.

Overall, I liked this odd little western homage and was entertained. The story is common to the genre as are the stereotypical characters, but that is completely on purpose. This is some nice tension and suspense to go with the bloody action and the cast all perform their parts well. If the film falters somewhat, it is in that sometimes it’s quirky humor comes at the wrong moments when things should stay tense. Otherwise this is a fun western from a man who has already impressed with his horror flicks and Blumhouse who continues to support indie filmmakers. Also stars Burn Gorman as a less than typical priest.

-MonsterZero NJ

3 six-shooters.

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