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Entries in Action (4)

Wednesday
Oct052016

NILALANG

Stars: Cesar Montano, Maria Ozawa, Meg Imperial, Yam Concepcion, Cholo Barretto, Dido De La Paz, Kiko Matos, Sonny Sison, Alexandre Charlet and Aubrey Miles.
Writers: Pedring Lopez and Dennis Empalmado.
Director: Pedring Lopez.

Rating: 3.5/5

Pedring Lopez’s blood-soaked romp Nilalang is a wildly enjoyable exercise in mash-up expertise. In equal measure a pulpy Pinoy crime meller and spooky Japanese samurai lark, the Filipino auteur brushes aside some illogical plotting with stunning action set pieces, grim bloodletting and gorgeous animation. Throw in the entirely appropriate casting of a J-porn actress and span 400 years from the pre-credit sequence to end scroll…well, let’s say Lopez leaves nothing on the table in crafting his cult hit in-the-making.

With co-scripter Dennis Empalmado, Lopez uses a dazzling animated sequence that posits his backstory in feudal Japan, 1602. Samurai warriors must protect The Book of Darkness, a tome of Ishi scriptures that capture and carry the slain demon spirits, written in the blood of the legendary ‘Ronin’ soldiers. When the demon Zahagur escapes, leaving a trail of tortured and dismembered victims in its wake, centuries of bloodshed lay before him (the credit sequence, which montages 400 years of man’s inhumanity to man set to a thrash-metal track, coolly suggests Zahagur has chartered the course of mankind’s uglier moments).   

The action transplants first to the port district of Manila, circa 2013, and the take-down of a possessed Japanese criminal Nakazumi (Art Acuna), before settling into the murky, crime-ridden milieu of the present day Filipino capital. A crime scene recalls the brutal methods of the deceased Nakazumi, a coincidence that baffles the NBI Special Crimes Division and its tough-guy anti-hero, Tony (Cesar Montano), who pulled the trigger on the bad guy back in ‘13. With spunky, tough-girl offsider Jane (a terrific Meg Imperial) up for anything, Tony begins to believe that spirits once held captive by The Book of Darkness are out for vengeance and soon those associated with the cop are dropping like flies (or, more accurately, beheaded, disembowelled and face-scalped flies).

Veteran leading man Montano carries himself with a square-jawed, action hero machismo; barring one explosion of emotion in a driving rainstorm, his stoicism in the face of brutal crime scenes, reanimated bad guys and hot women wanting to bed him recalls a granite-like Jean-Claude van Damme in his prime. Said ‘hot woman’ is Maria Ozawa, the former Japanese X-rated star (she retired her AV persona in 2010) making a play at legit drama in the role of Miyuki, an S&M nightclub hostess and descendant of those who wronged Zahagur, who must face-off against the supernatural forces gaining strength.

Or something like that. The convoluted plotting gets a little blurry at times, opening up holes that are never fully closed. The evil spirit is able to possess at will (not unlike the villain in the 1998 Denzel Washington vehicle, Fallen); its vaporous form commands such bit players as an old lady housekeeper, a grave digger and several well-armed bodyguards. Why it doesn’t just take command of Jane or Tony or Miyuki is not clearly addressed.

Not that it really matters, frankly. Lopez is a thrilling visual stylist, filling every corner of his widescreen frame with lush colours and rich detail; DOP Pao Orendain's lensing is world class. Some brutal deaths are etched in the graphic-novel style animation, which proves no less stomach churning; scenes of bare skin torture and gruesome blade work will sate horror buffs (the fate of Yam Concepcion’s pretty young thing Akane is not easily forgotten). Some dialogue is ripe, though it plays well within the 80’s era construct with which Lopez is clearly enamoured. Positively pulsating with ballsy energy, Nilalang carries off a posturing swagger rarely glimpsed in the anaemic mainstream action cinema of today.

Thursday
Sep042014

KITE

Stars: India Eisley, Samuel L Jackson, Callan McAuliffe, Zane Meas, Carl Beukes, Lionel Newton and Deon Lotz.
Writer: Brian Cox; based upon the film by Yasuomi Umetsu.
Director: Ralph Ziman.

Rating: 2.5/5

Dabbling in the same fetish-feminism and coldly-served revenge fantasies that made Zack Snyder’s Sucker Punch such a wildly divisive work, artist and occasional director Ralph Ziman brings an appropriately seedy but miserably downbeat aesthetic to this long-in-development adaptation of Yasuomi Umetsu’s R-rated anime.

The blood-soaked, soft-core original drew conservative ire and censorship board wrath for its depiction of schoolgirl skin-flick anti-heroine, Sawa. In Brian Cox’s script, the random fornication so prevalent in the cartoon is gone, replaced by a greater focus on Sawa’s troubled psyche and fitful recollection of her past (the skimpy costuming, of course, remains). Fuelled by an addiction to the street drug Amp and hell bent upon avenging the slaying of her crusader cop dad, she delves deep into the sordid world of child prostitution where she ekes out and exterminates any evildoer that crosses her.

Live-action reimagining of the original’s key visual cues and memorable moments will register with the fan base. Relevance is attempted by positing the action in a post-GFC dystopia, riddled with the kind of social decay that budget restraints demand is conveyed by lots of peeling paint and smoke machines. The expansion of the plot from 50 minutes to a laborious 90 yields no discernible thematic gain; additional elements such as parkour street gang rivalries and Sawa’s softening when faced with an orphaned teen bolster the running time but not audience involvement.

Ziman’s flesh-and-blood embodiment of Sawa is American actress India Eisley, registering strongly when called upon to humanize the cold-blooded assassin but unable to cut it when the going gets physical; best amongst the cast is Australian Callan McAuliffe as Sawa’s street-urchin guardian, Oburi. Prime villainy is provided in the form of ‘The Emir’, played in a brief, charismatic turn by local character actor Zane Meas, and his OTT pommie offsider, Vic (some ol’ school scenery-chewing by Carl Beukes); all other bad guy parts are of the ‘arms folded and wait to die horribly’ variety. Gorehounds will find some glee in an opening sequence that features an exploding head seen through a gaping hole in one baddie’s hand and a henchman’s death by dum-dum dildo.

The property fell into Ziman’s hands when Snakes on a Plane director David R Ellis passed away unexpectedly during pre-production. Cast as the Sawa’s protector and loner cop Karl, a clearly disinterested Samuel L Jackson was locked in and hung around when the shoot went ahead, but there is a tangible sense that not everybody was particularly enthused about continuing. Shot in South Africa, the narrative occasionally recalls Luc Besson’s Leon and Tarantino’s Kill Bill double feature, but ultimately feels more akin to such weekly rental VHS staples as Avenging Angel and I Spit on Your Grave than anything worthwhile in its own right.

Friday
Jul252014

GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY

Stars: Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana, Dave Bautista, Lee Pace, Michael Rooker, Karen Gillan, Djimon Hounsou, John C Reilly, Glenn Close, Benicio Del Toro and Laura Haddock; featuring the voices of Vin Diesel and Bradley Cooper.
Writers: James Gunn and Nicole Perlman; based on the comic book by Dan Abnett and Andy Lanning.
Director: James Gunn. 

Rating: 4/5 

It never soars to the wildly subversive comic-book craziness that he conjured in 2010’s cult gem Super, but director James Gunn’s vividly idiosyncratic spin on Marvel’s renegade misfits, Guardians of the Galaxy, certainly represents a bracingly fizzy cinematic blast to the increasingly formulaic 'summer superhero' format.

Given the entire budgets of his past efforts amount to a week of craft services on a tentpole franchise starter of this scale, Gunn doesn’t forego his trademark eccentricity and engagingly off-kilter grasp of character to over-indulge his expanded canvas. Instead, he backs his established strengths while also revealing an artist's eye for colour and scale, ensuring his first mega-budgeted work is a beautiful looking film. The space-scapes and interplanetary worlds he creates and the menagerie of alien types that people them are truly wondrous at times.

In sublime creative synch with fellow scripter Nicole Perlman, Gunn bravely kicks off his blockbuster debut with a surprisingly downbeat prologue, introducing our hero, Peter Quill, as a boy experiencing the death of his cancer-riddled mother in the early 1980s. As he runs crying into the foggy night, an alien spacecraft nabs him, setting in motion a life spent drifting amongst the stars, forging a meagre living as a collector of tradable junk.

This adult Quill, aka self-proclaimed ‘Starlord’, is played with raffish charm by Chris Pratt, perfectly embodying the archetypal ‘reluctant hero’. Caring for very little except the mix-tape of classic rock tunes his mother made for him (in what is surely the best use of ‘classic rock’ oldies since The Big Chill), Quill is suddenly thrust into importance when he finds an elaborate orb that contains an ‘Infinity Stone’, an all-powerful energy source that can lay waste entire planets and that every villainous dictator in the galaxy wants.

Gunn’s first act deftly establishes the galactic landscape and the character conflict, although there were some mutterings at the screening attended by Screen-Space that this early section was too convoluted, the political evil-doings that define the conflict dragged down the first half. Not so for this reviewer, as the detail pays off in character empathy and tangible tension as the film progresses.

The Guardians coalesce organically, their individual agendas and dark personalities entirely believable. It is to script’s credit that such empathy is found in this ragtag bunch of losers, given they include an entirely CGI-crafted giant tree/biped hybrid called Groot (voiced by Vin Diesel); a fiery-tempered Raccoon-like experiment gone wrong named Rocket (Bradley Cooper, in a great voice-over performance); Drax, a mountain of man-muscle out for vengeance (MMA legend Dave Bautista); and, the green-skinned warrior-woman Gamora (the supremely physical and superbly photogenic Zoe Saldana). Their nemesis are just as richly observed, key amongst them Michael Rooker’s Yondu (one of the original Guardians in the early print editions, though no such reference is made here), Lee Pace’s Ronan the Accuser and Karen Gillan’s Nebula, whose lithe figure and striking blue skin tone is set to dominate the cosplay universe in the years ahead.  

Lumbering this jaunty, funny, irreverent work with the Marvel label should ensure a solid opening weekend, but truth be told the film’s weakest elements are those that bind it to the template the comic giant demands of its adaptations. Gunn works wonders with a thrilling effects-heavy finale, but the carnage too closely resembles the final frames of The Avengers, Captain America: Winter Soldier and some parts of the Thor movies; it is one of the few moments in Gunn’s otherwise wonderfully original vision when audiences may utter, “Yeah, seen that before.” The studio’s demands that franchise starters have sequel-ready plot devices also dictate that characters are established here (amongst them, Benicio Del Toro’s The Collector and Josh Brolin’s barely glimpsed Thanos) to clearly serve and only fully develop in later instalments.

The counter to such claims is that those concessions are a small price to pay to allow James Gunn and his creative team access to Guardians of the Galaxy lore. It seems an ideal melding of filmmaker and material, with low-budget genre graduate Gunn (watch for a cameo by mentor and Troma Studios founder, Lloyd Kaufman) bringing all his cool-kid confidence, pop-culture savvy and fan-boy enthusiasm to his debut in the big league.  

Friday
Jun272014

TRANSFORMERS: AGE OF EXTINCTION

Stars: Mark Wahlberg, Jack Reynor, Nicola Peltz, Stanley Tucci, Kelsey Grammer, Titus Welliver, Sophia Myles, TJ Miller, Thomas Lennon and Bingbing Li.
Writer: Ehren Kruger.
Director: Michael Bay.

Rating: 0.5/5

No one expected director Michael Bay and the shareholders at Paramount Pictures to expand the art of cinema when they okayed a fourth Transformers film; we all get that these films only exist to drive quarterly earnings and fuel the ‘business’ of showbusiness. But nor was anyone envisioning just how insultingly low the creative team were willing to stoop to grind out their product. In ‘fast-food cinema’ terms, Transformers: Age of Extinction equates to one of those beef/bacon/cheese/beef monstrosities; those who dream it up know how horrible it is, but they also know everyone will want to try it for a couple of weeks.

The resurrection of Optimus Prime by good ol’ boy junk merchant Cade Yeager (Mark Wahlberg, going through the everyman-hero schtick with a couldn’t-care-less ambivalence) is at the heart…no, wrong word…centre of the narrative. After the destruction of Chicago in the last (and, up until now, worst) Transformers epic, Prime has hidden as a rust-bucket rig in an abandoned picture palace. This setting allows Bay and writer Ehren Kruger (who wrote two good movies over a decade ago – Arlington Road and The Ring – before descending into Hollywood hackdom) the films only flourish of ironic ‘wit’ – the crotchety old gent theatre owner (great character actor Richard Riehle, wasted here) complains that all they make sequels and remakes nowadays.

Yeager, with his dimwitted surfer dude stereotype offsider Lucas (TJ Miller) cracking wise by his side, get the truck back to the family homestead and begin the repair work to bring the Transformer hero back to life (Yeager is an amateur robotics expert, you see). But that is an illegal act, as all alien robots have been deemed enemies of the state, and soon black-suited, comically overstated ‘federal agents’ are tearing up the farm to find Prime.

The first act set-up is pure idiocy, with Yeager painted in very broad brush strokes as the square-jawed, blue-state archetype, every shot of him bathed in the dusk/dawn glow of sunlit heartland purity, a gently unfurling American flag always at the edge of frame. Yet Yeager is so relentlessly dimwitted and lacking in self- awareness, it becomes unclear as to whether the production is celebrating or mocking traditional American values.

However, the bewildering first act is Shakespearean compared to an extended mid-section which may represent the worst second act in scriptwriting history. Stanley Tucci, reprising his shrill paycheque performance from previous instalments, and Kelsey Grammar amp up the villainy as techno-entrepreneurs who have adapted the Transformer mechanics into new weaponry behind the government’s back (the current administration is stoopid, get it?) Wahlberg, his tarty-Barbie Doll daughter Tessa (Nicola Peltz, Bay’s latest shameful fanboy fantasy take on womanhood) and her Irish (?) boyfriend, Shane (Jack Reynor) run and shoot and yell a lot, with no discernible impact on the plot for over an hour. From that point on, Transformers Age of Extinction is an unforgivably dull showreel of mindless carnage and mass destruction coupled with an extraordinary disregard for time, place, life, logic, physics…everything, in fact, but its own boorish, bombastic existence.

Other elements that grate include a new level of grotesque product placement (I know, the whole film is ‘toy brand product placement’, but…really, Bud Light?); the perpetuating of ‘Are we still doing this?’ stereotypes, mostly racial (all Asians know martial arts) and gender specific (the only women to make it in the corporate world are 20-something models in mini-skirts); and, blue-screen effects work that looks amateurish for a 2014 film budgeted at a stomach-turning US$165million.   

Bay has bludgeoned a throne for himself in the Hollywood upper echelon that has allowed for final cut on a series of insanely over-priced sequels. Above all other Hollywood by-products, these clunking mechanical behemoths need a committee of bureaucrats to keep egos like Bay’s in check. That his latest effort runs to 165 incoherent minutes is arrogant self-indulgence of the highest order and indicative of a hubris that will ultimately lead to an industry’s equally immense fall from grace.