Double Feature – “The Conjuring” (2013) & “Sharknado” (2013)

Now before you start singing the “One of these things is not like the other….” song from Sesame Street after observing the line-up for today’s review, let me explain. I had intended on writing on “Sharknado” earlier (matter of fact, I saw it two weeks ago, and had planned to review it with  “Pacific Rim” and “Atlantic Rim”), but life got in the way – as it always does.  After reshuffling my schedule, I made the decision to include “Sharknado” into today’s write-up alongside the new haunted house horror flick “The Conjuring”. So before I express my innermost thoughts on “Sharknado” before my brain explodes, let me forego the traditional explanatory introduction and get right to the action.

 


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“THE CONJURING” – New year, new haunted house/demonic possession/exorcism movie based on a true story. Ah, Hollywood. You never cease to amaze me. Okay, that was a really shitty way of starting this review. But seriously though, EVERY YEAR, there’s ALWAYS a horror movie about a haunted house or a demonic possession or an exorcism. Usually, it’s based on a true story, or inspired by true events.  And believe me, it’s something about the phrases “based on a true story” or “inspired by true events” that scares the bejesus out of the casual moviegoer. “The Conjuring” is the latest offering in the “true story” sub-genre of horror films and it’s directed by James Wan – the guy responsible for the twisted brilliance that was “Saw” (2004), the aight “Insidious” (2011), the hopefully good “Insidious: Chapter 2” coming out this September, and the it-better-be-great-or-else-I’ll-burn-the-fucking-theater-down “Fast and Furious 7” slated for release next summer.  The story, set in 1971 Rhode Island, centers on Edward and Lorraine Warren (Patrick Wilson from “Watchmen” and Vera Farmiga from “The Departed”), husband-and-wife paranormal investigators  who probe the disturbing events occurring in the farmhouse of Carolyn and Roger Perron (Lili Taylor and Ron Livingston) and their five daughters.

 

Now I’m rather hesitant when it comes to watching horror movies in the theater. No, I’m not the type to scream orders at the on-screen characters (“RUN, BITCH, RUN!!!”, “HE GON’ KILL YOU!!!”, “WHY THE FUCK DID YOU OPEN THAT DOOR?!!”) or throw my popcorn in the air after each and every jump scare. Personally, there’s not that many horror movies nowadays that are worth paying full admission price to see.  But truth be told, “The Conjuring” is a rare exception.  First of all, the movie was rated R by the MPAA for sequences of disturbing violence and terror. Not gratuitous nudity, not sexual content, not even graphic violence. Disturbing violence and terror.  In other words, it’s rated R for being SCARY!  That itself sets the movie apart from the number of recycled, rehashed-formula horror flicks that come out yearly.  “The Conjuring” relies on old-school scare tactics, as opposed to generic scenes of blood, guts and dismemberment (no, I’m not referring to this year’s remake of  “Evil Dead”), to freak out its viewer.  Fortunately, these tactics are clever and effective in jolting the viewer and aren’t reduced to cheap jump scares like those in your typical horror flick (“There’s something behind you!” *CUE JUMP SCARE MUSIC* Oh, it’s just my cat Pussy!” – You know, typical shit like that).  I found myself highly impressed by the film’s old-school, circa-1970s look and feel, from the cinematography handled by John R. Leonetti and modeled by James Wan after 1970s horror films to the yellow-coloured scrolling text of the film’s opening disclaimer and title. The performances are strong, especially from its leads Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga. The script by Chad and Carey Hayes (who also penned the lame-ass 2005 “House of Wax” remake, which is ONLY memorable for Paris Hilton’s EXCELLENT death scene. Seriously. I can’t remember ANYTHING else from that fucking movie) is well-written and evenly-paced. The sound design and musical score also deserves credit. My main gripe, however, with “The Conjuring” was that (spoiler alert…..sorta) some the scares in the first half of the film were already shown in the film’s trailer. So when I saw them again on the big screen, I couldn’t help but wish I hadn’t seen them earlier, or had them revealed to me initially. But despite that, I truly enjoyed “The Conjuring”. It’s a smart, entertaining and creepy-as-hell haunted house/demonic possession/exorcism movie based on a true story that’s living proof that old-school scares are still effective in this day and age. And believe me, after you see this movie, it will resonate with you long after you leave the theater. True story.

 

And now the moment the two of you were waiting for……or at least I’d like to imagine you did.

 

 

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“SHARKNADO” –  In the year 2013, there has been quite a number of moments that changed the way we look at television: the shocking climax of the “Rains of Castamere” episode in Season 3 of HBO’s “Game of Thrones”, the death of a few key characters in AMC’s zombie survival series “The Walking Dead”, the revelation at the season finale of ABC’s “Scandal” that I heard about, but never saw since I haven’t even started watching “Scandal” yet. Yes, I know, SHAME ON ME!  Anyoo, there is one other moment that deserves to be listed in terms of the most memorable TV this year…..at least to me, that is: the climax of SyFy’s latest foray into intentionally bad cinema “Sharknado”. I won’t get into full detail about this scene, but I will say it involves a gigantic shark, an older Steve Sanders (Ian Ziering) from “Beverly Hills 902010” (REMEMBER THAT SHIT?!!) and a chainsaw. Even if you haven’t seen “Sharknado” in its epic splendour, you may be familiar with this scene – whether you saw a clip of it on TV, or saw a GIF of it online. But following the showdown between the chainsaw-wielding Ian and the gigantic shark, is a certain Jonah-from-the-Bible-inspired moment that made me lose my fucking mind!  That moment defied everything at that point: logic, gravity and common sense!  When I saw it, I instantly threw my hands up, left the room where I was watching the movie and LMAO’d over what I just saw! It was truly the FUNNIEST, INSANEST, most jaw-dropping, oh-no-they-didn’t, are-you-fucking-kidding-me, how-high-were-these-people-when-they-made-this-shit moment I have ever seen on television.  If HBO has its infamous “Red Wedding” sequence from “GoT” to be proud of this year, the SyFy channel has that moment from “Sharknado”! I shit you not!

 

About the movie? Well, it’s produced by The Asylum (SIDE NOTE: in my previous reviews, I mistakingly assumed The Asylum as a VFX company. In fact, it’s a film studio and distributor. So for providing that wrong information, I humbly apologize). It stars Ian Ziering as Finley “Fin” (Yeah, I know. Funny, right?) Shepherd, an ex-surfing champion turned L.A. beach bar owner who parted ways with his wife April (Tara Reid), daughter Claudia (Audrey Peeples) and son Matt (Chuck Hittinger) thanks to a divorce.  Fin hangs out with his attractive employee Nova (Cassie Scerbo), his best friend Baz (Jaason Simmons who played Logan Fowler on “Baywatch” – REMEMBER THAT SHIT?!!), and an old drunk named George (John Heard). One day, off the coast of Mexico, a tornado swallows up a school (I believe that’s the correct term. I could be wrong) of sharks. In L.A., the threat of Hurricane David (the first of its kind to hit California) looms over our fearless foursome.  When the hurricane does hit, flooding occurs in various parts of Los Angeles. Fin, with the help of Nova, Baz and George, sets out to rescue his family from harm. Soon enough, FIn reunites with his family, and together they ward off sharks of different varieties while seeking shelter. As you may have guessed, the sharknado (of course, I’m referring to the weather phenomenon. For other uses, see Sharknado (disambiguation)) reaches within seeing distance of our heroes, and now they have one shot to stop it (i.e. the tornado) /them (i.e. the sharks) from destroying Los Angeles and biting/swallowing/providing a healthy source of seafood for its denizens respectively. How will they accomplish this, you ask? Ask Matt, Fin’s son: “Instead of waiting for live sharks to rain at us, we’re getting into (that) chopper and throwing bombs into the tornado, blasting those bastards to bits!”.  Thanks, Mr. Exposition.  Dumb ass.

 

“Sharknado” has EVERYTHING you expect from a SyFy Original Movie: shitty script, shittier visual effects, one-dimensional characters, unintentionally bad dialogue and of course, gigantic animals that kill for no reason other than the fact that it’s a “horror film” and they’re supposed to be killing machines.  But what makes this film special is the absolute ABSURDITY of its premise alone. SHARK-NADO?! A TORNADO with SHARKS inside it? Fucking absurd, I know! Then again, if a house can find itself in the wonderful land of Oz thanks to a tornado, then I guess SHARKS can find themselves suspended in mid-air in the middle of Los Angeles. Sigh. Only on the SyFy Channel.  But despite its slap-you-upside-your-head=for-saying-it-with-a-straight-face premise, “Sharknado” is, shockingly enough,  a VERY ENTERTAINING TV movie.  And honestly, when’s the last time you saw one of those? The movie is fast-paced, the laughs are both intentional and unintentional (which is very surprising for a SyFy Original Movie), and the ridiculousness is non-stop. Even the editing is laughable. In an early beach scene, bright exterior shots are inter-cut with darker ones. There are numerous cutaways of gushing water – clearly done to cover up the film’s already-tiny budget ($1,000,000 according to IMDb). The acting is bad (especially from Tara Reid who still can’t act for shit) – and the dialogue spoken by these actors is even worse. But the dialogue is so funny and so WTF, that you won’t care about bad acting. Here’s two examples. In one scene, Fin is driving through flood water with Nova, Baz and George. Nova notices a shark in the water. “That’s a tiger shark”, she says. Fin asks “How do you know that?”. Nova responds “Shark Week”.  I was literally in stitches when I heard that line. Seriously!  In a later scene, Nova tells this gut-wrenching……….ly story to Matt about how her grandfather died at the hands….oops, I mean teeth….of a shark. “They took my grandfather. That’s why I really hate sharks”. Mr. Exposition, seeking a response to console the poor girl, says: “Now I really hate sharks too.”. Funniest…..response……EVER!!

 

And what’s a review on “Sharknado” without the sharks themselves? The only thing realistic about the sharks is the footage shown during one scene where a shark finds itself in the pool of a retirement home.  These sharks find themselves capable of breath, even when they’re suspended in mid-air in a fucking tornado, they drop out of the sky at will, they use flood water to smash their way through windows and devour human beings and die easily by handgun bullets and shotgun blasts provided by Nova who’s amazingly skilled in using a shotgun (though it’s never explained how).  One issue I had with this movie was the lack of non-Caucasian characters. There was a female Chinese surfer who calls Ian Ziering’s character “grandpa” in an early scene in the movie. And there was a black man in one of the retirement home scenes in the final act, but unfortunately he’s placed far in the back, and shot out-of-focus that you’d easily miss him. Apart from those two individuals, the rest of the cast is primarily white. Even J.J. Evans from “Good Times” had some screen time in the 2011 SyFy Original Movie “Super Shark”. J.J. fucking Evans! Kid Dynomite! Anyhoo….

 

“Sharknado” is, by far, one of the best worst movies I’ve seen all year.  Who knows? After a couple more viewings, it may find itself in my upcoming “Top 10 Best Movies of 2013” list. Ah, who I am kidding? It’ll easier find itself in my “Top 10 Worst Films of 2013” than anything else. Then again, I’ve been meaning to add a “guilty pleasure” segment to my best and worst movies lists – so maybe (I’m not guaranteeing anything) “Sharknado” will be my guilty pleasure movie of 2013. If I could rate “Piranha 3D” (not to be confused with “Piranha 3DD” – i.e. the worst movie of 2012) as my guilty pleasure movie of 2010, then why not “Sharknado”? Time will tell.  This movie truly changed the way I looked at television, and it changed the way I looked at sharks. And tornadoes for that matter. It’s far from scary, far from intelligent and far from boring. Unless you genuinely abhor everything SyFy Channel, you should check this movie out as soon as you can.  Like Lifetime’s “Liz & Dick”, “Sharknado” is a certified so-bad-it’s-good cult TV movie. And with a sequel in the works, you’ll be hearing about “Sharknado” for a long time to come. Now if only Animal Planet can muster up some competition.

 

MY RATING:

“THE CONJURING” – 4 out of 5 stars (“See this movie”)

“SHARKNADO” –  1 1/2 out of 5 stars (“That shit cray!”)

 

– Matthew

Main Event Reviews: “Pacific Rim” (2013) vs. “Atlantic Rim” (2013)

In 2007, American screenwriter Travis Beacham was walking on the beach near Santa Monica Pier and imagined a giant monster and giant robot fighting each other to the death. He later conceived the idea of two pilots controlling this giant robot, and asked himself “What would happen if one of these people dies?”. Intrigued by the idea, he wrote a 25-page treatment. One year later, Legendary Pictures bought this treatment, then titled “Pacific Rim”. Director Guillermo Del Toro (the man behind the badass “Blade II”, the fantastic “Hellboy” and “Hellboy II: The Golden Army” and his Spanish-language masterpiece “Pan’s Labyrinth”), intrigued by Beachman’s treatment, made a deal with Legendary Pictures to co-produce and co-write the film. Five years later, “Pacific Rim”, which started as a simple idea during a walk on the beach, is now a summer blockbuster. Ah, the power of imagination. And film production companies.  And money.

 

On December 14th 2012, the first official trailer for “Pacific Rim” went viral on YouTube, and viewers worldwide went APESHIT! Amazed by the state-of-the-art special effects, they blogged, tweeted and non-virtually asked themselves questions like “How did they do that?”. One man, however, asked himself “How can WE do that?”. I’m not sure who this man is, and honestly, it doesn’t matter. What does matter is that on June 24th 2013, approximately two and a half weeks before “Pacific Rim” opened in American theaters, “Atlantic Rim”….. I shit you not…… ATLANTIC MUH-FUCKIN’ RIM …. came out on direct-to-DVD. This mockbuster (i.e. low-budget rip-off of a popular, big-budget film) – or as I call it – Z-Make –  is the latest film from visual effects company The Asylum, responsible for such classics as 2006’s “Transmorphers” (I can imagine the gut-busting laughter during the marketing pitch for that movie),  2010’s “Titanic II” (which is NOT a sequel to James Cameron’s 1997 magnum opus “Titanic” , in case you were wondering), “Abraham Lincoln vs. Zombies” (not to be confused, of course, with “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter”) and the SyFy Channel’s original movie “Sharknado”  (which I WILL be reviewing very soon. Scout’s honour).

 

And now for the MAIN EVENT!

 

 

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First, from Warner Bros. and Legendary Pictures, with an estimated budget of $190 million, directed by Guillermo Del Toro, and starring Charlie Hunnam, Idris Elba, Rinko Kikuchi, Charlie Day, Burn Gorman and Hellboy himself, Ron Perlman, it’s the giant robot vs. giant monster smackdown “PACIFIC RIM”!!

 

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And its opponent, from The Asylum, with an estimated budget of $500,000.00, directed by Jared Cohn and starring Graham Greene, William Shannon Williams (real name), David Chokachi, Jackie Moore and Treach from the legendary rap group Naughty by Nature, it’s the wannabe giant robot vs. giant monster smackdown “ATLANTIC RIM”!!

 

 

“PACIFIC RIM” – The true original out of the two competitors kicks off tonight’s main event.  Set in the 2020s, “Pacific Rim” begins with an inter-dimensional portal opening at the floor of the Pacific Ocean. This portal unleashes gigantic creatures called Kaiju (Japanese for “monster”), that wreak havoc and destruction in different parts of the world. The leaders of the world put their petty (I guess) rivalries aside, unite and create the Jaegars (German for “hunters”), gigantic humanoid mecha controlled by two pilots. These pilots are mentally linked by a neutral bridge, which allows them to share each other’s memories and past experiences, thus making them more efficient in navigating the Jaegar.  The Jaegar project is a success, as Kaiju after Kaiju get their asses whooped – so to speak. However, due to budgeting issues, the Jaegar project is discontinued and humans have resorted to building massive walls to protect themselves from possible Kaiju attacks. Four Jaegars are deployed to Hong Kong where the construction of a coastal wall is nearly complete. Stacker Pentecost (AWESOME NAME!!) (Idris Elba), commander of the Jaegar forces, is determined to end the war, which he plans to accomplish by destroying the portal. But to do that, he needs the best Jaegar pilots at his side. He persuades retired ex-Jaegar pilot Raleigh Becket (Charlie Hunnam) to pilot the Gipsy Danger, the Jaegar he piloted years ago. Together with Mako Mori (played by the very pretty Rinko Kikuchi), Raleigh returns to the field….or sea or whatever….to wage war on the terrifying creatures which threaten humanity’s future.

 

Like the Guillermo Del Toro films that I mentioned above, “Pacific Rim” is a visually stunning movie to look at.  Del Toro loves creating strange and unique worlds, from the amazing Troll Market in “Hellboy II: The Golden Army” where creatures of all shapes and sizes populated the screen, to the dark, nightmarish Labyrinth of the Faun in “Pan’s Labyrinth”. The post-apocalyptic world of “Pacific Rim” is just as unique, with its neon-lit cityscapes, bleak exteriors and brightly-lit interiors. Primarily, the film is a homage to the Japanese-originated genres of kaiju (which started with the post-Hiroshima cultural icon Godzilla or Gojira) and mecha (an immensely popular genre involving robots). Del Toro has the utmost respect and admiration for these genres, and it shows in the film’s grandiose approach to its subject matter. Jaegars face off against Kaiju in SPECTACULARLY BAD-ASS fight sequences, the likes of which can be imagined in a manga/anime….or Saturday morning cartoon for that matter. Comparisons of these sequences can be made to adrenaline addict Michael Bay’s “Transformers” trilogy, but the differences between those films (with the exception of the first one) and “Pacific Rim” are that, simply put, the fights in “Pacific Rim” are better edited, better choreographed, easier to comprehend and far from sloppy. Also, the film skillfully uses size and scale to its advantage, making the viewer feel physically small in relation to the gigantic creatures and robots shown on-screen. The acting is exceptional, though there’s no standout performance or scene-stealer. The true scene-stealers are the Jaegars and Kaiju, and when they appear on-screen, they OWN the fucking movie! My gripes with this movie are few. Nearly all of these fights take place at night (and mind you, they look INCREDIBLE) but I would have loved to see a few more fights in the daytime to add some variety to the film. Also, the story, while well-written by Travis Beacham and Guillermo Del Toro, slows down in the first hour thanks to a section of expository dialogue and character development that I personally felt ran a bit too long. Finally, there were a few moments where the film took itself too seriously despite its anime/manga/Saturday morning cartoon premise, but then again, it’s an American summer blockbuster. If we don’t take gigantic robots kicking monster ass seriously, who will?  In the end, “Pacific Rim” is exactly what it sets out to be, and exactly what you want it to be. It’s a live-action cartoon with human characters, gargantuan monsters and equally-gargantuan robots to annihilate them in epic fashion!  And it’s also a triumph in visual storytelling and special effects that will have fanboys and fangirls all over the world worshiping Guillermo Del Toro (not like he’ll be comfortable with that though….since he’s Catholic and all).  Hideo Kojima of “Metal Gear Solid”  fame loved it, Kanye West called it one of the greatest movies ever made, and I call it a solid summer film that deserves to be experienced on the big screen….in 3D…..and in IMAX if you can cough up the extra money!

 

 

“ATLANTIC RIM” –  You know those rappers who try to rap in a sing-song manner like Drake or use Auto-Tune to sing bullshitty choruses, just because they’re popular trends in rap music? And then they tweak these trends (usually by fucking them up entirely) just to appear “different”? Well, that’s what “Atlantic Rim” is: it blatantly copies the premise of “Pacific Rim” while trying desperately to be different. Creatures rise out of the Atlantic Ocean – their origins never explained – and the military hires these three self-righteous caricatures to kick their asses. They’re so full of themselves that they walk majestically cliched slow motion towards an Army jeep, just to get a free ride to the military base. It takes about half a minute, in case you were wondering.

 

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With their gigantic robots (nicknamed…I think… Red Bot, Blue Bot and Green Bot by their users – which is funny since Treach from Naughty by Nature gets the Green Bot – ’cause he be smoking weed in his spare time and shit – apparently), the trio fights gigantic creature after ugly, unimaginative gigantic creature. It’s the equivalent of watching an episode of “Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers” (which, as you should know, is inspired heavily by the kaiju genre). Even the robots themselves look like something out of the Power Rangers TV series.

 

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The Asylum could’ve made a toy line based off this movie. If only they had the money. Ah well.

 

The story is dull and uninteresting for its 81-minute running time. An oil rig is sunk thanks to some creature whose origin is left unexplained, and our three Zords…oops, I mean, heroes….are sent to investigate.  Afterwards, more creatures attack and our heroes are forced to step back into their robots (which run out of fuel quickly, leaving them incapacitated and immovable, by the way) shout orders at each other and save the day. “Atlantic Rim” is really fucking lame, but the cheesiness and corniness of the film itself makes it watchable.  Feel the joy as ‘Red’ (played to a douchebag-level extent by David Chokachi’) dances with his potential love interest Tracy (Jackie Moore) at a party, while footage of death and destruction inter-cuts their scene together.  Smell the tension as Jim (of ALL the names in the world, you’re going to call Treach’s character JIM?! Really?!!) saves a girl from a building engulfed in After Effects-rendered flames, and tells her that his superhero name is Superfly, because he’s “gonna fly her out” to safety in his Green Bot. HUH?!!! Gaze in amazement as the trio, powered by metallic headbands connecting themselves to their machines (*COUGH*rip-off of neutral bridge in “Pacific Rim”*COUGH), swing their arms wildly in order to get their robots to move their arms to fight the creatures. And connect emotionally with ‘Red’ who, after being placed in solitary confinement for insubordination (this montage runs for about a minute, but I assume he stayed in there for no less than 5 minutes before his superior enters the room), keeps his spirit and determination up by pacing up and down the room, doing push-ups, writing something on a piece of paper at a table, shadowboxing and screaming at the guard outside. It is the FUNNIEST scene in the entire movie! I replayed this scene about FIVE TIMES, and laughed my ass off every time! Yes, I said ‘replayed’. This movie is available for download on the torrent site of your choice, so hopefully, you won’t see the need to buy it from the bootleg DVD distributor of your choice for $10.

 

If you enjoy watching bad movies, especially with friends, you’ll find lots to laugh at in “Atlantic Rim”. The special effects are crappy, the story is poorly-written, the characters are one-dimensional and the dialogue is nonsensical. Examples include: “Jesus  H. Christ! I’d love to be watching the news tonight”, “Tell him it’s too late! It hatched!”, “We jammed that sucker! We JAMMED it!” , “What is this on my sonar? It looks like a mermaid” and my favourite line “WHOA! I GOT A WARHAMMER!!”  But thanks to its over-seriousness and lack of tongue-in-cheek humour (which most SyFy Original Movies contain. by the way), “Atlantic Rim” is a movie that you won’t be watching again….or at all.

 

Oh, and by the way, Mr. William Shannon Williams, Samuel L. Jackson just called. He wants his eye patch back!

 

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“PACIFIC RIM” – 4 out of 5 stars (“See this movie”)

“ATLANTIC RIM” –  1 out of 5 stars (“Of course it sucked!”)

– Matthew

 

 

 

Double Feature – “Spring Breakers” (2013) & “Only God Forgives” (2013)

While you two are still waiting for what I may have to say about the SyFy Channel’s latest magnum opus “Sharknado”, I’m going to take the time to tackle two films I’ve been dying to see this year: American filmmaker Harmony Korine’s “Spring Breakers” and Danish filmmaker Nicolas Winding Refn’s “Only God Forgives”. Released in March, “Spring Breakers” stars Selena Gomez in her first “breakthrough” adult role which, alongside her radio single “Come and Get It”  which came out one month later, and which I personally think is a VERY fucking annoying song ……yeah, I said it…. represents her maturity as both a singer and actress. It also stars another ex-Disney tween star: “High School Musical’s” own Vanessa Hudgens, whose song for the “Spring Breakers” soundtrack, weirdly titled “$$$ex”, is even more fucking annoying than “Come and Get It”. But it’s short….and it has a catchy beat, so that counts for something, I guess! Ashley Benson (from some TV show called “Pretty Little Liars”), Rachel Korine (the 27-year old wife of the film’s 40-year old director Harmony Korine….hmmmm), Southern rapper (and one of the worst in the rap game right now, in my honest opinion) Gucci Mane, ex-WWF wrestler Jeff Jarrett  (playing a preacher, of all things) and everyone’s favourite Oscar-nominated pothead actor James Franco also make appearances in this movie.

 

“Only God Forgives”, not to be confused with Miami rapper Rick Ross’ previous full-length LP “God Forgives, I Don’t”, NOT to be confused with the 1967 spaghetti western of the same name, is a French-Danish co-production shot entirely in Bangkok, Thailand. It marks the second collaboration between Nicolas Winding Refn and Hollywood actor Ryan Gosling, the first being the EXCELLENT neo-noir crime thriller (and one of my favourite movies of 2011): “Drive”. It also stars Kristin Scott Thomas (star of “Four Weddings and a Funeral”, “The English Patient” and last year’s “Salmon Fishing in the Yemen”), Tom Burke, Gordon Brown, Byron Gibson, Vithaya Pansringarm, Ratha Phongam and Kovit Wattanakul.

 

So were they worth the three combined hours invested into them? Let’s find out!

 

 

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“SPRING BREAKERS” – Selena Gomez (whom the common man won’t get shit from – even if he wants it! Dumb-ass song!) plays Faith (funny they should name her that), a college student and devout Christian. Faith and her three childhood friends (also college students) Candy (Vanessa Hudgens), Brittany (Ashley Benson) and Cotty (Rachel Korine) set out to go to Florida for Spring Break. Upon arrival, they get involved in a number of wild beach parties, all involving drunk guys, topless chicks and BANGING music! When they’re not partying, they drink, smoke, ride scooters, get bored, call their mothers to tell them they’re doing fine, and even get the chance to sing Britney Spears’ debut single “(Hit Me) Baby, One More Time” a capella-style. After getting arrested for partaking in an indoor party full of booze, drugs and sex, Faith and her friends are bailed out by  “Alien” (James Franco). “Alien” is a gangsta rapper, and like the real rapper Lil’ Wayne, he believes himself to be “not from this planet, y’all” – hence the alias. But don’t let the pre-“Dutty Rock” Sean Paul-like braids (before he upgraded to a fucking Mohawk of all hairdos) and platinum grill fool you. Alien is the rare case (even in today’s rap game) of a WHITE gangsta rapper who lives the “thug life” he raps about. Yes, this dude makes his money by drug dealing and armed robbery. For him, it’s all about “making dat money” and nothing and no one will get in his way of getting it – not even Big Arch (Gucci Mane), Alien’s drug-dealing rival. Anyhoo, Alien gets closer to the foursome, much to the discomfort of Faith. She fears something terrible will happen. And as expected, something terrible DOES.

 

“Spring Breakers” is that type of movie that you’ll either like or hate. Well, I’m proud to say that I’m one of many who really liked the hell out of this movie! I found myself glued to the screen from start to finish, which I blame on on the film’s vibrant visual style and no-holds-barred approach to its subject matter. It takes you on a hazed and hallucinatory journey through the debauchery of Spring Break festivity, while exposing its dark, rotten core. To the untrained eye, “Spring Breakers” looks like an extended montage of excessive partying, sleaze, sex and violence – but it’s more than that. In essence, it’s really about the seductive allure of the American Dream, but presented as a fantasy that we all would like to see come true, even though, unfortunately, it changes instantly into a nightmare. We all desire happiness and freedom. Most of us would kill for the opportunity to do whatever we want, without any objection or opposition. And I will admit, being a hip hop head and all, I oftentimes desire the mansions, cars, clothes, money and women that rappers express their desires for in their songs. But at what cost? Does it mean endangering yourself and others? Does it mean doing something that you don’t feel comfortable with? “Spring Breakers” asks these questions, and leaves it up to the viewer to find the answers. The casting is impressive (even from the lead actresses – Shocking, I know!), with James Franco taking the lead of best performer. His “Alien” is crazy, creepy, comical and quite captivating, and James Franco incredibly invests himself into the character (at times, you’ll even forget you’re seeing Franco). Stealing every scene he’s in, he truly embodies of the dark side of the American Dream.  The story, while simplistic, is consistently vibrant and well-paced. With its psychedelic visuals alone, “Spring Breakers” deserves the title of “cult classic”. It’s self-indulgent, outlandish and hedonistic, but at the same time, it’s bold, provocative and thought-provoking. And it is actually worth checking out. You may like it or you may hate it – but you certainly won’t forget it!

 

 

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“ONLY GOD FORGIVES” – When I first saw the trailer to this film, I was hyped! I loved the colours, the music, the violence, the mere fact you had no clue what the hell was going on, EVERYTHING! And I loved “Drive”, so “Only God Forgives” had to be just as good, if not better. Then, about a month or so ago, I was shocked to hear (via a YouTube movie reviewer) that the movie was BOOED at the Cannes Film Festival. Booed, I tell you! Was the movie so bad that the audience had no choice but to express their outrage by booing? Or was it too avant-garde for that same audience to comprehend it? Well, I’m proud to say that it’s kind of a mixture of both. And yes, lady and gent, if I were one of the audience members at Cannes at that time, I would have BOOED my fucking lungs off this movie as well!

 

“Only God Forgives” is, without a doubt, one of the best-looking bad movies I’ve seen in a long time! Yeah, I said it! BAD MOVIE – and not “bad” meaning “good”. Props go to cinematographer Larry Smith for making every shot look like a professional photographer’s wet dream. Striking visuals aside, this movie is a torturous exercise in patience, with no reasonable payoff. It involves the attempt of Julian Thompson (Ryan Gosling), an American who owns a Bangkok boxing club which is actually a front for a drug-smuggling operation, to find the persons involved in his brother Billy’s (Tom Burke) death. Billy, as presented in the film’s inciting incident, is a creepy bastard who brutally murders a 16-year old prostitute, for no reason, before surrendering to the police. Lieutenant Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm), rightfully nicknamed the “Angel of Vengeance”, informs the victim’s father of her death, and allows the man to exact his revenge on Billy. Julian and Billy’s mother Crystal arrives to Bangkok to identify her older son’s corpse. Afterwards, she asks Julian to kill the men responsible for the death of his brother, which, oddly enough, he refuses to do. Crystal meets some guy called Byron and organizes a hit on Chang. The “Angel of Vengeance” survives, and goes on a quest to find out who set up the hit. This leads him to Julian, who’s (probably) dying to take his frustration out on the man who oversaw the death of his dear creepy bastard of a brother.

 

Now I’m not a huge fan of Nicolas Winding Refn. Honestly, the only movie I’ve seen from him is “Drive”, but even that isn’t motivation enough for me to seek out his earlier work. That being said, I expected to see the same aspects I loved about “Drive”: great plot, great visuals, great acting, great characters. All I got unfortunately were great visuals. “Only God Forgives” is a joyless, uneven, slow-paced, incoherent and unrewarding film experience. And an overly self-indulgent one at that! The film feels more like “Hey, look at me! I’m Nicolas Winding Refn. I made ‘Drive’ with Ryan Gosling! Look what I can do!”, while throwing image after image at the screen, as opposed to “Hello. I’m Nicolas Winding Refn. I made ‘Drive’ which was a GREAT movie starring Ryan Gosling! Watch me make ANOTHER great movie!” and using a well-written and coherent story to connect these images together. On the subject of acting, Ryan does little of it. He doesn’t do anything except stand, sit, walk, run, punch, get punched and stare at a person or persons for long periods of time. And he has this mopey, depressed and bored facial expression throughout the entire movie! I am not bullshitting you! Ryan Gosling maintains this face throughout the entire movie!

 

 

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That is some Madam Tussauds Wax Museum-type shit right there!

 

The main characters in this movie are so detestable and heartless, that it’s hard to relate to, or connect with, any of them. Even Ryan Gosling’s Julian is far from a great hero – or antihero for that matter. In one scene (which resembles a number of scenes in the same setting), Julian is at a nightclub (check pic above) staring boringly at one of the prostitutes. He then notices two men sitting on the other side of his table. Apparently, they’re looking at the girl the wrong way, and Julian’s offended. He viciously slaps one of the guys around, and drags him across the floor by his lower lip. Then a jump cut occurs, and Ryan’s sitting in the gym at the boxing club – still moping, still staring forward, like nothing happened. In other words, Julian’s actions in the previous scene are left unjustified. And that’s the main problem with this movie. While I expected a high level of violence in this movie – and there is, to a disturbing degree  – I expected with it some justification and motivation for these violent acts. For example, what’s the justification behind Lieutenant Chang’s use of a sword (concealed behind his back, in case you were wondering) in the film’s major scenes?  Even if it’s made apparent that he’s a lone wolf within the police department, and follows his own code of ethics (like a Thai samurai or some shit), why does he feel the need to chop, slice and stab his enemies? ‘Cause he has a sword?! And where’d he get that sword in the first place?! As the standout character in the movie (yes, Vithaya Pansringarm outshines the host of the fucking movie – for better or worse), he, off all people, deserved some sort of justification and motivation for his actions.

 

Kristin Scott Thomas, who, according to Wikipedia, combined elements of Lady Macbeth and Donatella Verace to play Crystal Thompson, is the worst character in the bunch. She’s rude, despicable, shockingly vulgar, and an overall creepy bitch. In a dinner scene in the middle of the film, Crystal compares the size of her deceased son’s penis to that of Julian’s (What the fuck?!!). She’s usually presented in stylized slow motion, either walking or sitting down. In one of the film’s pathetic attempts at being avant-garde, Crystal sits in a nightclub, puffs on a cigarette and stares at three Thai bodybuilders. Why? I have no fucking idea! Weirdly enough, there’s lots of scenes of characters staring and gazing into the camera. Whether it’s a club scene where police officers stare at Lieutenant Chang singing a Thai love song on stage (and he’s not that bad of a singer – or should I say, the guy who probably lip-synced for him) or Julian staring lifelessly at a prostitute playing with herself in front of him (Seriously, what the fuck?!!), staring contests abound in this movie. There are a few positives however. The hit on Chang was shot and edited very well, the fight scene between Chang and Julian was well done (though the outcome was VERY disappointing), Cliff Martinez’ (who collaborated on “Drive”) musical score fits well with the bleak, haunting vibe of the movie, and Chang is a BADASS – and a mean, scary son of a bitch as well!

 

I flat-out HATED “Only God Forgives”.  Viewers will find themselves cringing at the senseless violence, rolling their eyes after hearing the short, soulless spurts of dialogue blurted out by the actors, or falling asleep altogether. Apart from the impressive visuals, there’s nothing of worth for me to recommend a viewing to anyone. If you haven’t seen “Drive”, see it as soon as you can. It’s a masterpiece compared to this movie! If you have seen it, watch it again and pretend this movie doesn’t exist. “Only God Forgives” is one of the worst films I’ve seen this year, and will find itself at the end of December on a particular list on this blog dedicated to bad movies. Like Rick Ross, Cheech Marin in “Machete” and Terence Hill said before: “God forgives….. I don’t!”

 

MY RATING:

“SPRING BREAKERS” – 4 out of 5 stars (“See this movie”)

“ONLY GOD FORGIVES” –  2 out of 5 stars (“I want my money back”)

– Matthew

Main Event Reviews: “World War Z” (2013) vs. “Apocalypse Z (Zombie Massacre) (2013)

In my continued attempt to bring some variety to this blog, I plan to continue the “versus” concept that I incorporated last year into my write-up: “Mirror Mirror vs. Snow White and the Huntsman: The Fairest Fight of them All”. Back then, the title suited that post perfectly as I compared and contrasted the two live-action Snow White films which came out a mere two months apart from each other. But like the Overlooked Movies category that I christened last week, today’s post marks a brand-new category to A Legally Black Blog that I’d like to call “Main Event Reviews”. Here, two movies with a similar theme, similar title or EXACT title (i.e. original vs. remake) do battle for ultimate supremacy. Ties are rare in this competition, but for the most part, there can only be one winner.

 

And now for the MAIN EVENT!

 

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First, from Paramount Pictures, Skydance Productions, GK Films and Plan B Entertainment, with an estimated budget of $190 million, directed by Marc (“I was the guy who directed “Quantum of Solace” – You know,…that ONE James Bond movie that Daniel Craig fans shitted on”) Foster, and starring Brad (“My name’s in the dictionary. Really! Look it up!”) Pitt,  David (“Yo, I got snubbed for that Emmy! Really! Look it up!) Morse, and Matthew (“’Alex Cross’ does not exist! Really! Look it up!”) Fox, it’s the zombie-apocalypse summer blockbuster “WORLD WAR Z”!!

 

 

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And its opponent, from Metrodome Distribution, Event Film, Extreme Video and 8988 Games (Ooookay then), with an estimated budget of….$1,000,000 (WOW!), written and directed by Luca Boni and Marco Ristori (“Either your brains or your signature would be on that cheque. I’m just kidding. That was a Mafia joke. We’re not Mafia, by the way”), and starring Uwe (“Do people really call me the Ed Wood of the 21st century?”) Boll, Tara (“I was an extra in ‘Beverly Hills Chihuahua”. Really! Look it up!”) Cardinal and Carl (“I don’t even know what fucking movies I’ve been in. Check IMDB or sum’n”) Wharton, it’s the seemingly-original “APOCALYPSE Z” (a.k.a. ZOMBIE MASSACRE)!!

 

If you haven’t realized it by now, “Apocalypse Z” (or “Zombie Massacre” which is actually the better title) is but one of a large number of Z-movies (or Z-makes as I’ll be calling them throughout this review) that blatantly copy the premises and/or titles of particular Hollywood movies (mostly horror or sci-fi) which either came out in the past or currently generated a lot of Internet buzz, like “Snakes on a Plane” (‘remade’ as “Snakes on a Train” — now that’s fucking original), “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter” (‘remade’ as “Abraham Lincoln vs. Zombies”) and the upcoming  mecha vs. monster sci-fi flick “Pacific Rim” (‘remade’ a few months ago – or should I say, copied the premise from the TRAILER for Pacific Rim before the movie even came out – as “Atlantic Rim”). Now Z-makes shouldn’t be confused with the “XXX parody” (a term which is pretty much self-explanatory). At least those movies are self-aware that they’re making fun of your favourite movies, like “Spider-Man” (parodied as “Spider Babe”), “Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl” (serving as inspiration for “Pirates”) and “The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring'” (INFAMOUSLY parodied as “The Lord of the G-Strings: The Femaleship of the String”). Z-makes, from what I’ve observed, are far from intended parody. They’re presented as “legitimate” films made by “legitimate” film companies for a “legitimate” audience (i.e. those over 21 who want to get drunk with some friends on a Saturday night and laugh at a bullshit movie).  Z-movie film production studios hiring smaller-time visual effects studios and washed-up or relatively unknown actors to work on these “center of the Earth”-low budget films is one thing, but giving these films titles that are obvious rip-offs to superior (for better or worse) Hollywood films  is something else altogether. I think the main reason behind this practice is to fool the customer into thinking that the Z-make is RELATED to the Hollywood film, like the aforementioned “Abraham Lincoln” movies. If the “Vampire Hunter” film is inaccessible, then the customer would be inclined to stream (online), rent or (gulp) BUY the “Zombies” film. And just like that, the Z-movie studios make money and/or generate their own Internet buzz.

 

Now I’ve never seen a Z-make before, and I figured that now would be a great time to start, considering the worldwide success of “World War Z”. You know and I know that I’ll HATE the shit out of “Apocalypse Z”, but I am a film buff and as such, I have to be open to a wide variety of movies. And with a bag of popcorn in my hands and my brain on my lap, I’m confident that I will, at least, catch a few laughs with this movie. Besides, I’ve sat through Z-movies before. Just recently, I watched “Super Shark” on the SyFy channel (ONLY because E! TV host Joel McHale poked fun at it on “The Soup” (best show on E! – I’m just saying)) IN ITS ENTIRETY and it was HILARIOUS……LY BAD! Here’s a hilarious video based on the movie. Call it “ringside entertainment”:

 

 

Well, it looks like the two competitors are desperately trying to keep themselves awake. So long intro aside, LET’S GET READY TO RUMBLE!!

 

“WORLD WAR Z” – There’s a lot of zombie movies out there, but not that many with a PG-13 rating.  Like “I Am Legend” back in 2007 (which was, in retrospect,  a very good but not a great Will Smith film),”World War Z” takes a horror sub-genre dedicated to blood, guts and rotting flesh and tells a story that audiences 13 years and over can enjoy. Though it apparently strays away from Max Brooks’ 2006 novel of the same name (I haven’t read the book, and I don’t have any intention to any time soon), Marc Foster’s adaptation succeeds as an entertaining, thrilling and….I shit you not…..FUN zombie movie. Brad Pitt plays Gerry Lane, a former United Nations investigator and family man tasked to investigate a worldwide outbreak of a virus that turns people into zombies. While evading masses of zombies from country to country, Lane learns more about the virus and its effects. It’s this knowledge that can save humanity from the uncontrollable pandemic affecting the world, provided that Lane survives long enough to apply it.  Since Brad Pitt is the only A-list actor in “World War Z”, the film plays itself essentially as a Brad Pitt movie, with the supporting cast overshadowed by Pitt’s own star quality as a result. As expected, Mr. Bradgelina (do people still say that shit?) turns in a solid performance, and you can’t help but root for the guy as he runs away from, dodges and eludes zombies from the Middle East to Europe. The zombies themselves are well-crafted (in terms of both make-up and CGI) and if their twitchy movements and ability to leap onto their victims doesn’t freak you out, then seeing them pile themselves together into gigantic masses WILL.  There are some great jump scares in the film and a lot of holy-shit moments thrown here and there, but unfortunately, there are little scenes of genuine zombie violence.  I blame the rating for that aspect, for had it been a R-rated film, we would have been given the genuine gore that one expects from a zombie movie. But thanks to the film’s quick pace, dark tone and roller-coaster ride approach to its story, “World War Z” manages to elevate itself to a worthy entry into the zombie genre. Don’t go expecting a feature-length version of an episode of “The Walking Dead” and you’ll be fine.

 

“APOCALYPSE Z” – While “World War Z” was based on a novel, “Apocalypse Z” (actual name: “Zombie Massacre”) is based on the 1998  Amiga computer video game of the same name which, according to Wikipedia, was a clone of the CLASSIC first-person shooter “Doom” (which, if you know your video game movie history, was adapted to an immensely disappointing Universal Studios film starring Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson back in 2005). On the subject of video game movies, one name has become synonymous with shitty film adaptations of great video games: Uwe Boll. He directed not one – but FIVE bad video game movies: 2003’s “House of the Dead”, 2006’s “BloodRayne”, 2007’s “In the Name of the King: A Dungeon Siege Tale” starring Jason Statham, 2007’s “Postal” and 2008’s “Far Cry”.  With that being said, “Apocalypse Z” is a terrible movie. No, I don’t think you get it.  “Apocalypse Z” is a TERRIBLE MOVIE, and not in the ‘so bad it’s good’ category either. The plot is as follows: four mercenaries – 3 gun-toting guys and a woman wielding two fake-ass katanas (along with knives, a handgun just in case and a couple of shurikens….you know….for good measure) are hired by the CIA to infiltrate a Romanian nuclear power plant infected by a virus that…you guessed it….turns people into zombies. The mission is to blow up the power plant before the virus spreads worldwide or some shit like that. “Apocalypse Z” suffers from an abundance of expository dialogue. The main characters explain what the mission is about over and over to each other, and it gets really fucking annoying after the first ten minutes of the film. If the dialogue isn’t hammering a plot point to the viewer’s head, it tries its utmost hardest to develop character. This, however, fails every time thanks to the bad acting by the film’s cast. There are some incredibly ridiculous lines in this movie, the most bizarre of these being“You know what a big pile of shite looks like…with flies around it? I’m going to create a big pile of SHITE! You have to trust me on this one!”,  but none that can you expect to see on an Internet Meme in the future. Like most bad movies, there are some unintentionally hilarious moments. In one scene, one of the male mercenaries (I won’t say who – not like you’ll give a fuck anyway) is attacked by a zombie.  Before he passes away, he shares a homo-erotic moment with his comrade, who’s forced to kill him. The comrade leans over, and in a unconvincingly disenchanted manner, speaks the following: “Brother. So many wars…so many women..we will fight again! We will fight (*FAKE TEARS*) again! Forgive me, my brother!”. Unfortunately, the Oscar-worthy acting doesn’t end there! The acting throughout the film is so stilted and amateur, it’s as if they’re starring in a student film. Like I mentioned earlier, the estimated budget is $1,000,000 AND IT SHOWS! Every time a zombie with a different face (see, every zombie in this movie LOOKS DIFFERENT! They have no distinct facial features, as all look radically different from one another) gets shot with a fake bullet from a plastic gun with obvious After Effects muzzle flair added to it, you can literally see the budget burning on-screen. I expected to laugh my ass off considerably in this movie, but apart from a few corny one-liners, some laughable action sequences and a  performance by Tara Cardinal that would have even the most devoted of cosplay girls yelling at the screen in disgust over how uninspired her character is (her fighting movements….if that’s what they were supposed to be ….were lazy, sloppy and effortless. Even the way she holds her katana is lazy. Check the pic below)….

 

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….. “Apocalypse Z” is an absolute mess and a complete waste of 86 minutes of your life. It’s unexciting, un-entertaining, unoriginal (take a wild guess what this shot reminds you of)…..

 

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….. underwhelming and undeniably a big pile of shite….with flies around it. Unless you really enjoy laughing at bad movies, or you want to educate yourself on how NOT to make a original, low-budget horror/action movie,  do not see this movie. EVER! In fact, you should skip “Apocalypse Z”  altogether and move on to “Apocalypse Now”, since it’s a fucking masterpiece (PERIOD) compared to Uwe Boll’s entire filmography. Oh, and I forgot to mention: Uwe Boll plays the President of the United States. I’m not joking. German-born Uwe Boll plays a (surprisingly) foul-mouthed, bald-headed PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES – and he doesn’t even try to sound American! Good thing you only appear for one minute, huh, Boll?

 

AND THE WINNER IS –  Couldn’t you tell by my long-ass tirade in the previous paragraph? “World War Z'” is the better movie. It’s worth the time and the extra money (Yes, it’s in 3D – and it’s done REALLY well).  “Apocalypse Z”, like the game that inspired it, should, and will be, forgotten through the test of time.  “Super Shark”, on the other hand, will be remembered by me, ’cause that shit was HILARIOUS! Seriously, it was!

 

WORLD WAR Z” – 4 out of 5 stars (“See this movie”)

“APOCALYPSE Z” –  1/2 out of 5 stars (“Burn this movie….literally”)

– Matthew

Overlooked movies – “Red Cliff: International Version” (Parts 1 & 2) (2008/2009)

For today’s post, I’ve decided to take a little break from the mini-barrage of movies coming out from the woodwork every week since the Hollywood summer “blockbuster” season started. Now I’ve always wanted to do a special category of posts dedicated to movies that you – my two dear readers –  probably missed or were unaware that they existed in the first place anyway. In fact, my very FIRST review on this blog touched on a movie that not too many people heard about (the Japanese action-adventure “13 Assassins”) – which is a shame since it was the SHIT! It even made its way to my “Top 10 best Movies of 2011” list, in case you were wondering. So in my attempt to add some variety of this blog of mine, I’ll be writing on a non-Hollywood movie that, probably due to circumstance, poor marketing or slow torrenting speeds (*AHEM*), was unfairly overlooked.

 

This movie is called “Red Cliff”.  Now before I continue, there are a few points I have to mention: On the DVD and Blu-Ray two-disc sets released by Magnolia Entertainment, the title on the cover reads “Red Cliff: International Version: Part 1 & Part 2: Destiny Lies in the Wind”. While the latter part of the title sounds like (and is, in fact) a tagline (and a subtle hint at a particular turning point in the story which I won’t reveal), I’ll simply call the entire movie “Red Cliff” to avoid confusion. Secondly, I’ll be talking about the complete version of the movie and not the ungratefully-trimmed Western version of the same movie (entitled “Battle of Red Cliff”). I have seen bits of this version on cable television, and I can tell you: it really doesn’t hold a fucking torch to the original film. Besides, there’s no subtitles or even a shitty English dub for me to understand – or care – about what’s going on.

 

Anyhoo, “Red Cliff” is an epic Chinese historical war film based on the Battle of Red Cliffs, a decisive battle fought at the end of the Han Dynasty (from 208 to 209 AD) and prior to the beginning of the Three Kingdoms period. It should be noted that the events between these two turning points in Chinese history were chronicled in the highly-acclaimed historical novel “Romance of the Three Kingdoms”. Die-hard gamers should be familiar with these events thanks to games like “Dynasty Warriors”“Kessen II” and the long-running “Romance of the Three Kingdoms” series. “Red Cliff” is directed by the legendary John Woo, director of Chinese shoot-em-up masterpieces like “A Better Tomorrow”, “The Killer” and “Hard-Boiled” (one of my all-time favourite movies) and American action films like “Broken Arrow”“Face/Off” (his best American film to date) and“Mission: Impossible II”. Younger readers who associate modern action movies with names like Quentin Tarantino, Robert Rodriguez and Michael Bay may wonder what’s the big deal with John Woo. Well, it’s like this. Without Woo, there wouldn’t be a Tarantino, Rodriguez or Bay. With his strategically-choreographed action set-pieces (SIDE NOTE: he usually compared his action sequences to Hollywood movie dance numbers), an arsenal of blood, bullets and explosions at his disposal and a dash of stylistic flair, John Woo literally turned on-screen action into a fucking ARTFORM! Where’d you think they got the idea to give Keanu Reeves two guns to blast away at security guards in the first “Matrix” movie? John Woo. ‘Nuff said. Moving along….

 

“Red Cliff” marked John Woo’s long-awaited return to Asian cinema after emigrating to the United States following the release of “Hard-Boiled” in 1992. He admitted in an interview that the film was 50% factual, as he chose to alter the story by using modern feelings (and his own) for a more worldly acceptance. With a total running time of 280 minutes (yeah, it’s REALLY long), and a budget of US$80 million (making it the most expensive Asian-financed movie to date), John Woo’s epic was released in two parts: “Red Cliff I” released in July 2008 and “Red Cliff II” released in January 2009. Interestingly, the first part of the film broke the box office record held previously in mainland China by James Cameron’s  1997 Oscar-winning magnum opus “Titanic”. Which is a good thing, when you really look at it.

 

Long intro aside, let’s begin! (SPOILER ALERT: This first review has lots of Chinese names and references to Chinese movies, so please try to keep up)

 

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RED CLIFF: INTERNATIONAL VERSION (Parts 1 & 2) (2008 / 2009) –  “Red Cliff” begins with Prime Minister/Chancellor Cao Cao (Zhang Fengyi) declaring war on the Southern warlords Sun Quan (Chang Chen – a.k.a. the love interest to Zhang Ziyi’s character in the 2000 Oscar-winning wuxia film “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” – remember that shit?! ) and Liu Bei (You Yong) who he accuses of rebellion against the Han Dynasty. Cao Cao’s forces battle Liu Bei’s at the Jing Province (note: this battle is known historically as the Battle of Changban).  Though Liu Bei’s men fought valiantly in the battle, especially Liu’s sworn brothers Guan Yu (Batdorj-in Baasanjab – AWESOME NAME) and Zhang Fei (Zang Jinsheng), and military general Zhao Yun (Hu Jun) who each kicks serious ASS when they arrive on-screen, they were outnumbered by Cao Cao’s army and forced to retreat. Liu Bei’s highly-intelligent advisor/military strategist Zhuge Liang (Takeshi Kaneshiro – best known for his performance in the 2004 wuxia film “House of Flying Daggers”) suggests an alliance with Sun Quan. If they defeat Cao Cao’s forces, Cao Cao will have no choice but to retreat back North, thereby allowing Liu Bei to control the West and Sun Quan the South. After warning Sun Quan of Cao Cao’s upcoming arrival, Zhuge heads over to Red Cliffs where Sun’s army camp is based. While there, he meets Sun’s viceroy Zhou Yu (played by the LEGENDARY Tony Leung, star of a shitload of popular Chinese movies including 1994’s “Chungking Express”, 2000’s “In the Mood for Love” (GREAT MOVIE…..I’m just saying), 2002’s “Infernal Affairs” (famously remade by Martin Scorsese into the Oscar-winning crime drama “The Departed”), 2004’s “Hero” (my all-time favourite wuxia film….I’m also just saying) and this year’s “The Grandmasters”, a martial arts film I’m dying to see), alongside Liu’s sister Sun Shangxiang (Zhao Wei of “Shaolin Soccer” fame) and Zhou Yu’s wife Xiaoqiao (played by the beautiful Lin Chi-ling). Sun Quan joins forces with Liu Bei, and Zhuge Liang and Zhou Yu proceed to formulate a plan to defeat Cao Cao and his army. Meanwhile, Cao Cao acquires from a recently-surrendered army a large fleet of battleships which he plans to use in a naval attack on Red Cliffs. And that’s just the beginning….

 

Viewing “Red Cliff” for the second time after three years (yeah, THAT long….I know, right?), I realized how the structure of the entire film resembles that of “Hard-Boiled”. As you may or may not know, “Hard-Boiled” contains three major action set-pieces (with some minor action scenes placed in-between) placed strategically in the first, second and third acts of the film, with each set-piece increasing in length and scope. The same goes for “Red Cliff”: there’s two action sequences in the opening and closing of “Red Cliff I” and a grandiose action set-piece in the third act of “Red Cliff II”. If you combined both chapters, these set-pieces would be in the first, second and third acts of the entire story. If you’re a true John Woo fan like yours truly, you’ll also recognize certain visual references to “Hard-Boiled”. One major example is an early scene where Zhao Yun fights enemy soldiers with a baby boy slung over his back which alludes to a famous scene in “Hard-Boiled” where Chow Yun-Fat (who was originally slated to play Zhou Yu, but pulled out as shooting started) shot a number of bad guys while holding a baby boy in his arm.

 

Director John Woo himself stated that his favourite movies were Akira Kurosawa’s “Seven Samurai” and David Lean’s “Lawrence of Arabia”, and his passion for these classics shows in “Red Cliff”. Both chapters of this film are epic in scope, incredible in visuals and gripping in story. The acting is superb. Tony Leung (Zhou Yu) and Takeshi Kaneshiro (Zhuge), who’re technically the main leads in the movie, give excellent performances,  and the supporting cast (from actor Hu Jun who plays the courageous Zhao Yun to actress Lin Chi-ling – in her first feature film role, by the way – who plays the supportive wife of Zhou Yu) do a fine job.  Cao Cao (played splendidly by Zhang Fengyi) is an intriguing character, as he doesn’t come across as your typical scowling, sniveling, psychotic bad guy. He smiles, he laughs, he drinks tea, he compliments the beauty of women and so on, but he never forgets his mission, and won’t hesitate to get rid of any hindrance in accomplishing his mission. Though the pace is admittedly slow at times (since it’s an epic and all that), the story in “Red Cliff” is always compelling. The cinematography is gorgeous, the music by Japanese composer Taro Iwashiro is fantastic, and the special effects provided by The Orphanage are top-notch. There’s a brilliantly-crafted and fucking AWESOME long shot nearing the end of “Red Cliff I” where a dove flies from Red Cliff to the enemy camp that’s WORTH sitting through the two hours and fifteen minutes (or so) leading up to it (or checking out on YouTube if you’re that curious….or lazy).  And on the subject of The Orphanage, it’s such a shame that the California-based visual effects studio is no more. Such a shame indeed.

 

Finally, what’s a John Woo movie review without at least mentioning the action? “Red Cliff” delivers grand-scale battle sequences that are, arguably, on par with ANY and EVERY movie battle sequence you can think of from the past two decades…. and better than nearly all of them! Yes, even the Battle of Helm’s Deep from “The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers”! No shit!  John Woo takes decades of skill in choreographing and shooting great action sequences and applies them to this movie.  The battle sequences themselves are so well-executed, well-shot and well-edited that you will find yourself thoroughly engaged and entertained throughout every heart-pounding minute of them. Like I mentioned earlier, the characters of Guan Yu, Zhang Fei and Zhao Yun kick serious ass when they first appear in the film. Even though they’re side characters and aren’t the main focus in the story (think of them as Legolas, Gimli and – to a certain extent, Aragorn from “The Lord of the Rings Trilogy”), when they show up to fight, they bring their A-game to the table! Zhao Yun plays the Legolas character in a few scenes where he skillfully dispatches his enemies while executing some SWEET horse mount stunts in the process. The stalwart Zhang Fei is the Gimli character in the bunch as the guy doesn’t even use a weapon. He just runs towards his enemies, like an American football player, and knocks the shit out of anyone who gets in his way! Last, but not least, Guan Yu is clearly the Aragorn in “Red Cliff”. With his strength, speed (he also runs towards his enemies, but does it more warrior-like) and awesome skill with the guan dao, he is, by far, the most bad-ass of the three. And he shows absolutely no fear. Now ask yourself:  do you really want to fuck with this dude?

 

 

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I think not.

 

And for you action junkies who love your John Woo movies with a side order of explosions, have no fear: you’ll be provided with enough explosions in the final battle sequence to satisfy your taste buds. Doggie bags will be provided by management.

 

“Red Cliff” is surely one of the finest of all epic movies. It truly represents a return to form for John Woo, and it will stand out as both his most ambitious work to date and, through the test of time, his magnum opus. It’s one of my personal favourite movies, and for that reason alone, you should dedicate at least 4 1/2 hours of your life and watch this movie from start to end. Make sure to watch the international version and not that shortened “Battle of Red Cliff” bullshit that I mentioned earlier. If you’re a fan of John Woo movies, you will enjoy the shit out of this one! If you’re knowledgeable in ancient Chinese history, you’ll find much to enjoy here. And if you’re the type of person who thinks that John Woo’s only good for stylized shootouts and heroic bloodshed, then prepare to be surprised…hell, amazed….by this movie.

 

Need more convincing? Check out the official trailer. You can thank me later.

 

 

 

MY RATING –  4 1/2 out of 5 stars (“Definitely see this movie”).

– Matthew