Wednesday, 18 October 2017

GOD OF WAR (2017)

Directed by: Gordon Chan, Starring: Vincent Zhao, Sammo Hung, Yasuaki Kurata. Action/History, 2017, 128mins, Cert 15.

Released on Blu-ray, DVD and Digital in the UK by Kaleidoscope Home Entertainment on 16th October 2017.

In 16th century China, ruthless Japanese pirates (samurai and rogue rōnin in an uneasy alliance) invade the east coast, looting, pillaging and generally being far naughtier than Captain Jack Sparrow ever was. Having built themselves a seemingly impenetrable fortress (think Irontown from Studio Ghibli’s PRINCESS MONONOKE), stubborn old Chinese General Yu (Sammo Hung) still persists in marching his troops up the muddied slopes only to be repeatedly repelled by their better-armed Japanese pirate foe. The powers that be are understandably none too impressed with General Yu’s ‘Grand Old Duke of York’ approach and replace him with the younger, smarter strategist and niftier all-round solider General Qi (Vincent Zhao). 

Whilst it’s undeniably impressively mounted, the rather simplistic narrative spends far too much time examining the minutiae of Chinese political shenanigans and military strategy, and even (criminally) cuts one major battle scene off in its prime.  

Vincent Zhao’s fresh-faced General Qi livens proceedings up with his Rambo-like solution for penetrating the pirate’s fortified encampment and he’s also pretty nifty with those long bendy poles. Lady QI (Regina Wan), is supportive and loving one moment, but unreasonably stroppy when Qi is late home and the food’s gone cold. Yet she proves to be an accomplished and ruthless warrior herself when called upon to defend her kingdom (which isn’t even hinted at previously).

There are several incidental pleasures such as the sight of General Qi’s Ming army skimming across mudflats on wooden scooters which resemble large Dutch clogs, or the rogue Japanese pirates signalling their murderous intent by fanning themselves with light reflecting fans.
The final pirate ship showdown between the younger General Qi and Yasuaki Kurata’s elder pirate Commander Kumasawa is a splendid bloody and fiery climax (albeit one which really didn’t need the entire preceding 2 hours build-up).

Its lavish production design, sets and costumes are consistently eye-catching, and the battle scenes are visceral and not obviously CG enhanced. And whilst it didn’t quite blow me away like one of General Qi’s deadly three-eyed hand canyons, I’d take this grand scale 16th century pirate enactment over those Disney Caribbean ones any day.    
 ***(out of 5*)

Paul Worts

This review was originally published on the FRIGHTFEST website.

Saturday, 14 October 2017

BITTEN (TV Series 2014-2016)

Directed by: James Dunnison (8 episodes) and 16 others. Starring: Laura Vandervoort, Greyston Holt, Greg Bryk, Paul Greene. Fantasy/horror/drama, Canada, 2014-16, 3 Seasons. Now available on Netflix UK.

“I clean up pretty well when I’m human.”

Elena Michaels (Laura Vadervoort) is the only female werewolf in the world. Having left her pack and her werewolf ex-fiancé back at the Pack’s ancestral homestead in upstate New York, Elena is trying to carve out a ‘normal’ life in the big city (Toronto) as a photographer whilst her human boyfriend Phillip is kept in the dark about her true nature. Unfortunately a mutt (rogue werewolf) begins slaughtering humans and leaving the chewed carcasses in the Pack’s territory, thereby bringing both unwanted cop attention on the pack and with it the risk of exposure to the human world. The pack’s ‘alpha’ summons all the wolfy clan back, including Elena, the pack’s best tracker. Balancing her imbedded loyalties to the pack whilst juggling her current lover in Toronto and her ex’s persistence proves increasingly challenging as the rogue hunt is merely a prelude to a coordinated pincer movement by an organised bunch of mutts intent on overthrowing the pack’s reign by marshalling some very unsavoury characters. Or, as Elena so eloquently surmises: 

“Someone’s turning psychotic murderers into werewolves.” (oh my!).

Based on ‘The Women of the Underworld’ books by Kelly Armstrong (‘Bitten’ being the first), this three season Canada television series originally ran in the UK on the Syfy channel. Season one plays like a werewolf soap opera/mob drama with the werewolf version of Don Corleone (‘Jeremy’, pack alpha) played by Greg Bryk who acts through his teeth.  Surprisingly, there’s a liberal dollop of soft-core bonking in BITTEN, and a sizable dose of naked buttocks on display. So much so, the series could easily have been titled ‘Bottom’, or perhaps even ‘Bitten on the Bottom’. The lion’s share of posterior posing is assigned to Greyston Holt’s clenching ‘Clay’, (Elena’s ex: still obsessively in love with her - not yet forgiven for that bite which turned her). When he’s not flashing his rear end, Holt acts through his furrowed brow which seems in a permanent state of overhanging curdled angst. To complete the love triangle we have Paul Greene’s bland human boyfriend Phillip (a taller buffer version of ‘Prince Charming’ from ABC’S ONCE UPON A TIME fairytale series). 

Laura Vadervoort (SMALLVILLE, V) is every fanboy’s dream pin-up, and for their first glimpses of her character Elena they are treated to her naked back (or rather her body-double’s) as she’s enthusiastically riding boyfriend Philip. Unfortunately for him, Elena has to hastily employ an impromptu precautionary lupine coital interruptus as she feels the wolf inside her bubbling up. Unlike most fictional werewolves, BITTEN’s are largely able to control and regulate their transformations at will and are seemingly not beholden to the cycle of the moon. However Elena has kept it in for too long and it wants out, so after hurriedly dressing and spinning implausibly gullible Phillip a yarn about a late night photo shoot she’s quick as a whippet out into the backstreets of Toronto and promptly stripping off again (neatly folding her designer clothes for retrieval later) before a quick perfunctory computer generated transformation into one seriously cute wolf. Creature wise (and night-vision POV) we’re more in WOLFEN territory than say the biped incarnations of DOG SOLDIERS. And as Elena is so meticulous in preserving her attire, all hopes of a scene in which she wakes up in the wolf enclosure of Toronto Zoo and has to steal a schoolboy’s balloon to preserve her dignity are soon dashed.

The CG transformation sequences are treated with an almost dismissive matter-of-factness, an elongated hand here, an extended foot there, and the odd spine-rippling effect which briefly turns their backs into hairy Toblerones. The actual finished product wolves are passable; well let’s say at least several Windows upgrades on from SHARKNADO’s VFXs. 
Plotting wise, there’s an exasperatingly inconsistent approach to the werewolves heightened senses and superhuman strengths. Elena can rip hearts and puncture veins with without blinking, yet she and the pack are often reduced to chopsocky combat with opponents who have the wherewithal to bring guns and poisoned blades to the battle. And as for the shaky central premise about Elena being the only female werewolf because, wait for it, “No woman has ever survived the change” (presumably not a reference to the menopause), Marsha Quist from THE HOWLING (to pick but one), might have something to say about how ‘rare’ they are... 

Season Two ups the supernatural stakes with the introduction of witchcraft in the shape of an evil male witch named ‘Aleister’ (yep, the only one in existence) hell-bent on fulfilling the witches long held prophecy that a male witch will bring about the ‘Undoing.’ When Elena is captured by Aleister for blood experimentation, the werewolves form an uneasy alliance with the local coven to unite against a common foe. Unlike Season One’s 13-episodes, this and Season Three benefit from a more streamlined and better paced reduced package of 10 episodes apiece. 

Season Three brings with it revelations about Elena’s parents (a deliberately unsolved crossword clue left over from Season One), another challenge to the pack’s status, and in a development so obvious it’s only surprising it took till Season Three, Elena assumes the role of pack alpha and takes drastic measures which will change the lives of the werewolves forever.
Despite its clunky plotting, risible dialogue, and bland casting, I confess that after taking a few tentative bites of BITTEN I found myself practically wolfing down its soap-like guilty pleasures with an unseemly relish. Yes, I became smitten with BITTEN.

***(OUT OF 5*)       

Paul Worts

Sunday, 1 October 2017

TAG (2015) (Riaru onigokko)

Directed by: Sion Sono, Starring: Reina Triendl, Mariko Shinoda, Erina Mano, Yuki Sakurai. Action/Fantasy/Horror, Japan, 2015, 85mins, Cert 15.

Released on Dual Format (Blu-ray & DVD) in the UK by Eureka Entertainment Ltd on 20th November 2017.

Having escaped a supernatural maelstrom that results in the slaughter of two coach-loads of her schoolmates in one fell swoop, Mitsuko (Reina Triendl) finds herself constantly on the run from death and destruction. Alternative realities morph into one bizarrely surreal scenario after another, with blood and violence a constant companion. Eventually Mitsuko enters a portal into “The male world” where the truth of her horrific situation is finally revealed...

Opening with an outrageously audacious gory set-piece, I feared director Sion Sono had played his hand too soon and wouldn’t be able to maintain that initial catapult of insane momentum throughout the film. My fears proved entirely unfounded. After this overture sequence (which makes FINAL DESTINATION 2’s road accident premonition look like a minor scrape), TAG’s pace rarely relents as traumatised sole survivor Mitsuko (beautifully played by Reina Triendl) constantly flees multi-dimensional realities where, “Life is surreal”, “Every girl is reborn and lives twice” and, "Only something unexpected will change your destiny.”

Pillows and feathers are a constant motif heralding a transition where Mitsuko is ‘tagged’ and the baton is passed on into a fresh universe. Symbolism is thickly ladled throughout the narrative - no prizes for interpreting why the bridegroom (the only male character on screen until the final third) emerges from an upright coffin sporting a grotesque pig head with slavering tongue. The quasi pro-feminist thread is tightly woven into the fabric of the narrative and eventually emerges, literally, from best-friend Aki in a mecha-body horror symbiosis guiding our heroine to the (laughably oddball but contextually logical) denouement. All of which might explain Sono’s overtly fetishstic upskirt treatment of Japanese schoolgirls – but hardly justifies it. 

Visually impressive high overhead aerial POV tracking shots often peer down on our breathlessly hounded protagonist suggesting an omnipresence observing (or perhaps controlling) the unfolding proceedings. Director Sono stages the breathtaking and often jolting (CG reliant) carnage with an assured near-lunatic panache which erupts unsuspectingly at times and lavishes an inspired delirium on proceedings. 

The trailer states that it was “adapted from Yosuke Yamada's best-selling novel” which I confess I’m not familiar with so cannot pronounce judgement on whether it’s a faithful adaption or not. However, I can confidently say that the novel has inspired/spawned an exhilaratingly surreal, troubling and at times ultra-gory arthouse mashup which may defy being easily ‘tagged’, but is undoubtedly one heck of a wild ride.  

Extras: Trailer

****(out of 5*)
Paul Worts

Monday, 11 September 2017

IT (2017)

Directed by Andy Muschietti, Starring: Bill Skarsgård, Jaeden Lieberher, Sophia Lillis, Jeremy Ray Taylor, Finn Wolfhard. Horror, US, 2017, 135mins, Cert 15.

Released in cinemas in the UK by Warner Bros. Pictures on 8th September 2017.

New Kids On The (chopping) Block.

Back in 1990, Tommy Lee Wallace (HALLOWEEN III: SEASON OF THE WITCH), directed and co-wrote a 3 hour TV mini series adaptation of Stephen King’s gargantuan 1986 novel ‘It’. Over the course of its 900+ pages (in hardback form), ‘It’ chronicles the tale of a malevolent shape shifting alien entity lurking in the sewer drains of Derry, King’s fictional go-to small-town. Rising from its subterranean hellhole every 27 years, it terrorises the town’s children, feeding on their fears and dragging them down to the cavernous underground tunnels where they’ll float – just like one of the balloons it offers as bait whilst posing as a monstrous clown called ‘Pennywise’.

27 years after Wallace’s mini-series, mirroring the titular character itself, ‘It’ resurfaces again, this time in the guise of a big-budget cinematic remake split into two separate chapters. Unlike Wallace before him, current helmer Andy Muschietti (MAMA) and his screenwriters appear to have been afforded the comparative luxury of more than 4 hours in which to condense the sprawling narrative of King’s literary doorstop - given that ‘Chapter One’ arrives in a massive (for horror) 2 ¼ hour package. Dropping the original structure which cut back and forth between events originally set in 1957 and the 80’s – 2017’s IT ‘Chapter One’ is focused solely on the events of 1957 (now retro-updated to the late 1980’s), where we get to spend the entire running time with the pre-teen versions of ‘The Losers’ Club’ - a misfit bunch of school kids who band together to fight the clown. (Chapter Two will tackle events 27 years later when they will be forced to return to Derry to confront Pennywise’s evil as grown-ups).

IT (2017) ‘Chapter One’ plays like a cross between STAND BY ME (itself based on King’s novella ‘The Body’) and NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET 3: DREAM WARRIORS with Bill Skarsgård’s scarily re-imagined Pennywise as the Krueger-like ringmaster. Just like little Georgie Denbrough’s wax-coated paper boat, the terrific young cast are the wax that keeps the film afloat whenever it teeters and threatens to sink beneath its three-ring circus storm surges of CGI-enhanced Pennywise manifestations. Not that the filmmakers are clowning around, the level of onscreen violence and gore quota is surprisingly high, as evidenced right from the get-go with the graphic playing of the iconic storm drain encounter. (There’s also a brief but literally jolting slaughterhouse sequence which I wouldn’t expect in a ‘15’ rated major studio release). A geyser of blood erupts from a bathroom sink reminiscent of Johnny Depp’s deathbed splurge from the original ELM STREET, whilst the symbolism it represents, given the character it explodes over, references King’s own ‘Carrie’.

Bill Skarsgård’s version of Pennywise is darker and less playful than Tim Curry’s much-loved impish 1990 incarnation. Inevitably some will argue Curry’s iconic (clown) boots are too big for Skarsgård to fill (hey, ask Jackie Earle Haley how that feels like after the ELM STREET remake), but he stamps his own imprint on the character, particularly in eye-rolling close-ups, and sufferers of coulrophobia would still be well advised to give his  interpretation a wide birth.

Resetting the first chapter in the late 80’s enables the makers to tap into the current hysteria for STRANGER THINGS, even down to casting Finn Wolfhard from the show as wise-cracking Richie Tozier, alongside 80’s iconography such as the GREMLINS bedroom poster and the local movie house’s coming attraction; NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET 5: THE DREAM CHILD (in keeping with the film’s whole ELM STREET vibe). The late 80’s switch also allows for a great ‘New Kids On The Block’ running gag between the fat new kid on the block Ben (Jeremy Ray Taylor) and the object of his affection, Beverly (the excellent Sophia Lillis). Ben’s unrequited love for Bev is endearing and sweet, and young Taylor’s playing of the character yields a dignified pathos a million miles away from the broad slapstick of say ‘Chunk’ in THE GOONIES. 

Turning one’s attention away from the children’s performances, it must be conceded that IT is far from perfect. Muschietti over-cooks the numerous jump scares, which rarely land their punches (at least on this jaded reviewer), whilst the score over-bakes just about every beat. The finale confrontation is muddled and slightly underwhelming (although it does afford the arresting image of the ‘floating’ to which Pennywise keeps cracking on about). And despite agreeing they are safer together, the kids frequently wander off down the sewer tunnels / haunted house on their own (groan).

But these quibbles aside; this is still a far better initial stab at King’s magnum opus than one would dared have hoped for given recent King inspired misfires like THE DARK TOWER and THE CELL. The stellar performances of the fantastic young cast that compose ‘The Losers’ Club’ ensure we care about them even before that horrid old clown pokes his grease painted red nose into their world. And as a result, I for one - for once - wasn’t siding with the monster.

****(out of 5*)

Paul Worts