Empire of the Apes

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Three women are held captive on a prison ship in space, en route to be sold to an alien race as sex slaves. They capture one of the ship’s escape pods, and flee to a nearby planet. When they land they are confronted by the planet’s inhabitants – sentient apes, who hope to use their space craft to escape, or failing that to use the women as breeding stock to increase their dwindling numbers. At the same time, they are pursued but Zantor the prison warden, who fears retribution from his customers if he can’t supply the women on schedule.

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Nighthawks

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Lost somewhere in between Stallone’s highly successful Rocky and Rambo franchises, Nighthawks is an underrated gem in action cinema and is notable for introducing Rutger Hauer to American audiences and Sly kicking ass in drag.

Nighthawks revolves around two New York undercover cops DaSilva (Stallone) and Fox (Billy Dee Williams) who are assembled by a British Counter-terrorist specialist Hartman (Nigel Davenport) to form a task force to stop Wulfgar (Rutger Hauer) a dangerous international terrorist who has fled to New York.

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An American Hippie in Israel [Blu-ray]

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Prior to this disc release, I had never heard of An American Hippie in Israel, but being something of a fan of counterculture cinema, I was curious to see what it was about this film that prompted Grindhouse Releasing to give it the deluxe treatment.

Written and directed by Amos Sefer (who doesn’t seem to have made another feature other than this), An American Hippie in Israel stars Asher Tzarfati as Mike, the titular hippie of the title, a Vietnam vet who lands at Tel Aviv airport (in bare feet and complete with requisite beard and furry vest) with no real plans other than to live “an absolute free life in an absolutely isolated place, away from this civilization and culture of violence- without clothes, without government and without orders.” Fortunately for him, he is picked-up hitchhiking by young theatrical actress Elizabeth (Lily Avidan), who becomes instantly infatuated with Mike and his hippie lifestyle, joining him in his quest for peace and freedom. After hooking up with another local hippie couple (played by Shmuel Wolf and Tzila Karney), they head for a small uninhabited island just off the coast, only to find that the nice ideals of the counterculture lifestyle do not necessarily hold-up to the harsh realities of life and the basic instinct to survive. Continue reading

Elite Squad: The Enemy Within

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Brazil has long been famous for many things. Beautiful beaches, tanned gorgeous people, soccer, carnivals and more. But in more recent times, the movies emerging from the country have exposed a darker side, most notably in the drugs and guns of City of God (2002). Along similar lines was Jose Padilha’s Elite Squad (2007), which revealed a Rio of two worlds. The wealthy, idyllic side and the poverty of the slums. Caught between them were the police, battling both criminals and the temptation of corruption.

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The Thieves [Blu-ray]

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The heist film has a proud tradition. Intricate scheming, double-crosses, unexpected hurdles and, of course, the Team of Specialists. South Korea’s latest entry into the genre, The Thieves ticks all the boxes and yet manages to still be a fun romp all the same.

The story centres on career criminal Popie (Jung-Jae Lee) and his tight-knit band of thieves, including cat burglar Yenicall (the gorgeous Gianna Jun from Blood: The Last Vampire and My Sassy Girl), veteran disguise expert Chewingum (Hae-suk Kim from Thirst) and safecracker Pepsee (Hye-su Kim from The Red Shoes), newly released from prison. Continue reading

25 Carat

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Life has not been easy for Kay (Aida Folch). Her only family is her deadbeat Dad, who swings between making dodgy deals and losing any gains through gambling. Amidst it all, she meets a kindred spirit in Abel (Francesc Garrido), a taciturn former boxer and father of a young boy, now making a living as a strong-arm debt collector.

When one of her father’s schemes presents a sudden, high-risk way out of her situation, Kay recruits Abel. Together, they must negotiate a complex web of betrayal, intrigue and corrupt cops if they are to make it out alive – and with the cash.

The world of Spanish suspenser 25 Carat is not a particularly original one. The annals of film around the world are packed with similar tales of gangsters and kidnap and handovers. But while the movie does not look to break any new ground, it hits all the bases and does it well.

The focus on the lead pair of characters means they are well-developed and sympathetic. Kay may pride herself on being tough and independent, but she is desperately lonely. Abel thinks he has everything figured out, only to realise from Kay’s relationship with her Dad his own shortcomings as a parent. Both are damaged individuals fighting to retain some sense of morality. The result is that we, the audience, really care as the situation becomes increasingly complex and dangerous. The tension ratchets up because we want to see these two people find each other and escape.

The camerawork is subtle, but effective, making the most of natural light. The shots are often extremely tight when the lead characters are involved, adding to the sense of intimacy. The violence, when it happens, is shot in matter-of-fact style. It is sudden and messy; there are no choreographed martial arts experts here.

25 Carat is an action-thriller that could come from any country. But it shows that a solid plot with affecting characters still delivers the goods and this is a comfortable cut above average.

25 Carat is available on R4 DVD from Aztec.

The Raid

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Traditionally, a movie needs certain elements to be considered great. Terrific acting. Strong characters. Superb dialogue. Original plotting. The Raid has none of these. Yet, it is most definitely great. Absolutely great. This is an action film in its purest sense, where it delivers raw thrills and none of the frills.

The scenario is as lean and mean as it gets. A team of 20 heavily-armed police have been sent in to take out a crime lord who is operating from the top level of a dilapidated apartment building populated by criminals and thugs. They assault begins smoothly, with a professional entry and the first four floors are taken with ease. But then the team run into a small boy…

Welsh filmmaker Gareth Evans made his feature film debut with 2009’s Merantau, a fairly traditional martial arts film with an Ong Bak-esque plot of a young martial arts expert from a village coming to the decadent big city. The Raid follows up in that it, too, is a showcase for the Indonesian martial art silat, but also in that it brings back the bulk of the cast and crew including leading man Iko Uwais.

The team as a whole has clearly progressed and learnt a lot and The Raid is an adrenaline charge that surges from one hectic fight sequence to the next. The fights are aggressive, brutal and rapid. Guns blaze, machetes swing and feet and fists pummel all and sundry. Bodies are hurled against walls, thrown out of windows and impaled on broken doors. All with dazzling speed and precision.

The Raid is shot hand-held in HD, but unlike so many Hollywood ‘shaky cam’ blockbusters, the geography of every fight remains clear and easy to follow. This is due to some excellent camera choices, such as shooting wide and with a liberal sprinkling of overhead shots to keep the placement of the various protagonists plain at all times. This is not to say the camerawork is boring – far from it. When an invading police officer jumps through a hole in the floor to a thug-infested flat below, the camera follows right along after him in a clever shot involving a harness and two camera operators.

It may happily invoke just about every action cliche there is in its story (even the pregnant girlfriend waiting at home gets a nod), but the fighting is fresh and fantastic. The odd battle may go on a bit long, but that is a miniscule criticism when leveled against the phenomenal excitement and athleticism packed into The Raid. Don’t miss it.

Extras

The main extra on board is a six-part behind-the-scenes doco that covers everything from the exhaustive planning and rehearsal process through production and post. It is rapid-fire, but covers a lot of bases. We see how the sets were built, how the actors were sent to boot camp, the extensive fight choreography and even how the production was unable to afford a real riot van, so they had to customise an old truck…which frequently had to be push started.

Also present is the Q&A session from the film’s premiere at the 2011 Toronto International Film Festival and a variety of trailers, both for The Raid and other recent martial arts films.

The Raid is available on DVD and Blu-Ray from Madman Entertainment.

Gantz: Perfect Answer

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At the conclusion of Gantz (2010), college student Kei Kurono (Kazunari Ninomiya) found himself at a crossroads. After being swept up in some kind of strange contest with other people recruited apparently at the point of death, Kurono fought in the service of a large black ball called Gantz, battling aliens for ‘points’. But the battle proved costly, with his childhood friend Kato (Kenichi Matsuyama) being amongst the casualties.

But all is not lost. If Kurono can obtain 100 points, he has a choice of leaving the game…or resurrecting someone killed in action. He promptly takes over guardianship of Kato’s little brother and sets about going after bringing Kato back. Even as he focusses on his mission, other forces begin to move. A detective investigates the sightings of apparently missing people, a pop singer gains possession of a miniature version of the Gantz orb and a mysterious group of black-suited people begin their own hunt…

Gantz: Perfect Answer looks to up the ante on its predecessor. It takes the premise and expands it. The result is a sequel in the purest sense; you simply must have seen Gantz to make any sense of this. There is a token ‘previously’ intro, but a first-time viewer would surely be lost.

Dispensing with the backstory allows the story to immediately sweep in and introduce a wave of new characters and with them, a new set of rules. If the first movie was fairly faithful to the manga series that spawned it, the sequel sets about mining new ground from the outset. Among other things, we see the alien response from having all these black-clad humans hunting them.

Not only does the plot escalate, so does the action. It culminates in a terrific centrepiece mass battle through a subway train featuring martial arts, swords, guns and more. It is in this arena that Gantz: Perfect Answer finds its niche; as a glossy, sci-fi/superhero comic book movie as good as anything produced out of Hollywood.

Unfortunately, such highs are balanced with lows. Histrionic melodrama crops up repeatedly, as do some odd plot movements. For example, the hunt of Kurono’s girlfriend Tae Kojima from the manga is brought in, but not in a way that actually makes logical sense. It seems more like the filmmakers liked the opportunity for conflict within the Gantz team and did not care that it was a concept that did not fit the story.

The biggest sin, though, is sheer length. Almost every scene feels drawn out, every character moment and even fight extended until all enjoyment is almost wrung out of it. The story may come to a satisfactory end – no mean feat, given the source manga continues to wilder and wilder plotlines – but the telling of that story is undercut by its padding. One can only wonder how strong Gantz: Perfect Answer could have been with 45 minutes or more cut from it.

Overall, this is a stylish sequel that forms, with its predecessor, a unique tale. Visually expansive and wonderfully-shot, it is somewhat let down by its length and often illogical developments. If these can be forgiven, however, there is lots of enjoy here in a dazzling action/sci-fi adventure.

Extras:
  • Trailers
  • Making of Gantz: Perfect Answer
  • Fight Choreography

The main extra is a 32-minute ‘making of’ piece. This combines cast and crew interviews with behind-the-scenes footage of filming several key sequences such as the subway battle and the climactic face-off. It is more magazine-stye than informative, but it is still fun seeing moments like the wrap shots for each of the major cast members. They all seem genuinely touched by the production, which actually consisted of both Gantz and Gantz: Perfect Answer shot over several months and the outpouring of emotion each time shows what it meant to all involved.

Available on DVD and Blu-Ray from Madman.

Rurouni Kenshin

KenshinIn the middle of the 19th century, the traditional feudal system in Japan is in decline. The Bakumatsu war has seen the shogunate replaced by a centralised Government. The nationalist forces, fighting for a brave New Age, including the legendary skills of a swordsman known as Battosai (Takeru Sato).

Now, the war a decade over, Battosai has sworn off killing and has taken the name of Kenshin Himura. The guilt of so many deaths weighing heavily on him, Kenshin wanders from place to place, helping those in need. His travels lead him to Tokyo and a failing dojo, operated by a spirited and idealistic young woman named Kaoru Kamiya (Emi Takei).

But more menacingly, Kenshin finds an assassin has been plaguing local law enforcement under the banner of Kaoru’s dojo. To make matters worse, the assassin’s name…is Battosai.

Rurouni Kenshin is the live action adaptation of the popular manga and anime of the same name – or as it is known in the West, Samurai X. Director Keishi Ohtomo and his team were clearly acutely aware of the love many held for the source material and the attention to detail in casting, costuming, props and even character movement is impressive. This does lead to the odd problem carrying over, such as when characters refer to Kenshin’s war time activities “14 years ago” despite actor Takeru Sato clearly being in his early 20s.

If such aspects might suggest this is just a soulless, slavish recreation, that would be completely inaccurate, for Rurouni Kenshin is a hugely satisfying slice of action with a side helping of melodrama.

The story involves a criminal plot to flood the country with high-grade opium. The money raised from the drugs is then funnelled into the purchase of guns and hence, a new army for this brave new Japan. But when the lead chemist Megumi (Yu Aoi) escapes the clutches of chief gangster Kanryu Takeda (the scenery-chewing Teruyuki Kagawa) and seek solace at Kaoru’s dojo, Kenshin is dragged into the conflict and at last must decide whether to return to his killing ways or risk losing everything.

The set up allows for a number of fight scenes of escalating drama and complexity. The film may boast luxurious period production design and excellent cinematography, but it is the fights that really stand out and the stars of the piece. Whip-fast swordplay, a touch of wire fu and a strong vein of humour and creativity make these absolutely top drawer slices of action. It helps that they are superbly shot and always maintain a clear sense of character and geography.

Perhaps the drama gets a bit heavy-handed at times, with the emotional hand-wringing wearing out its welcome and getting fairly repetitive by the end, but that is small criticism against the wealth of just damn good fun that the film rolls out.

A slick action extravaganza, Rurouni Kenshin is a samurai sword epic with a big heart and a bigger sense of fun. Check it out.

Extras:

The main extra on board is a 20-minute “Making Of”. This is actually raw behind-the-scenes footage with no commentary.

Despite the dryness, this is actually quite entertaining as it primarily showcases the fights scenes, giving a glimpse at the extreme levels of organisation required to create the mass battles in the film. We also see the actors training and, most endearingly, the wrap moments for the two leads.

Available on R4 DVD from Madman Entertainment.

The Good, The Bad And The Weird

Good-Bad-DVDChang-yi Park (Byung-hun Lee) is a dangerous killer obsessed with his reputation, hired to steal a mysterious treasure map from a train in pre-World War II Manchuria. When the heist is foiled by a bounty hunter (Woo-sung Jung), oddball thief Tae-goo Yoon (Kang-ho Song) escapes with the map. Things quickly escalate and soon all three men are in pursuit of the map, as well as several gangs and the entire Japanese army in a race across the barren plains.

Director Ji-woon Kim has an impressive resume, including black comedy The Quiet Family (remade by Takashi Miike as The Happiness of the Katakuris), Woo-esque action thriller A Bittersweet Life and one of the greatest horror films of the past couple of decades in the form of A Tale of Two Sisters. For this outing, though, he was dealing with the highest production budget in Korean film history and ups his scope considerably.

The Good, The Bad, The Weird features a series of massive set-pieces, including a sprawling shoot-out in a dingy market and the big finish – a high-speed chase/battle across the plains involving gangsters on horseback, cars, motorbikes and artillery. These are wonderfully staged and shot using a myriad of camera tricks, some of which are revealed in the ‘behind the scenes’ featurette. What is most impressive, though, is that whilst watching the film, the viewer is not left wondering how they pulled off a tight dolly around a horse in full gallop, rather you are simply swept along by the spectacle.

As an action film, this is a resounding success. The gunfights are inventive and fun, mixing excitement with humour at every turn. It is hard not to be entertained. If there is a flaw, however, it is the lack of depth beyond the surface thrills. The characters, particularly Kang-ho Song’s “Weird” have backgrounds and baggage, but this is always presented flatly and the characters neither develop nor reveal hidden layers as the narrative unfurls. This holds the audience back from being fully invested in proceedings and also stops The Good, The Bad, The Weird from attaining true greatness.

Similarly, there are tentative hints at deeper themes that are ultimately left unresolved. There are varying attitudes towards Korea’s fight for independence and the crossfire between Japan and Korea. There are nods towards the cavern between responsibility and self-preservation. But these issues remain glossed over background detail when they could have added a lot more underlying weight.

The technical work is superb throughout. Dazzling camerawork aside, the production design is intricate and always thoroughly convincing, evoking a period and a place rarely seen on film screens before. All three lead actors do solid work, with Byung-hun Lee (A Bittersweet Life, JSA, G.I. Joe) obviously having great fun playing evil, complete with jet black goatee and eyeliner. But the film undoubtedly belongs to the versatile Kang-ho Song (Thirst, Memories of Murder, The Host), blending sympathy with danger and proving – if there was any doubt – that he is a major international talent.

A rollicking adventure yarn, The Good, The Bad, The Weird is terrific fun and pretty much a guaranteed good time. It just seems a shame that there couldn’t be a deeper sensibility from a director with a track record of doing exactly that.

Extras:

There’s a nice selection of extras including a behind the scenes segment, Cast & Director interviews, deleted scenes, alternate endings and a trailer.

Available on R4 DVD from Madman Entertainment.