Wednesday, July 16, 2014

OPEN GRAVE: WHO AM I?

Who am I is the first question asked by Sharlto Copley in the newly release OPEN GRAVE. The film opens with Copley waking to find himself in the middle of the night inside of a large concrete pit surrounded by corpses. Looking around he finds a lighter and a pistol. Luck seems to shine on him when someone up top hears him call for help and tosses down a rope.

Climbing out, he walks through a dark forest in the rain until he comes to a secluded house. Creeping in, he comes across 5 other people. No one trust one another and there seems to be little more than confusion until they calm down and begin to share their stories. The 5 in the group woke to find themselves in the house with no memory of who they are or how they got there. The only clues they have are driver's licenses with their names on them and a set of keys. None of them know who Copley is.

Scouring the house for clues they find little, but as the film progresses they begin to have bits and pieces of their memories return. Eventually they come to know that Copley's name is Jonah. Among the 5 who were in the house, one is a mute young Chinese woman who seems to know more than the rest but has no way of communicating what she knows to them.

Continuing their search for clues they split with a part of the group going out into the surrounding woods the next day to see if they can find any answers. While gone, one of those left behind hears a plea for help and goes to investigate. He comes across a man half naked and trapped among barb wire on a fence. As he goes to aide him get out, the man laughs and proceeds to try and strangle him with the wire, eventually stabbing him in the neck with a piece of wood from the fence. The others come to help but arrive too late. Jonah kills the insane man and they return to the house.

As the film progresses so does the slow and steady decent into madness among the survivors. Each one of them has a feeling that they know the rest but they just can't quite put their finger on how. As the clues mount and bits and pieces of memory return, they're just never quite sure how to view their memories. Taken out of context they could have done bad things as Jonah feels he did. Then again those that think they are the good guys could actually be the worst offenders. Until the end of the film we'll never know for sure.

Various attempts to find help result in their coming across groups of insane people wandering from place to place in the forest. A group of cabins ends up being filled with people all mad with intent to do bodily harm. The danger comes not just from these groups and individuals that they find but from the members of the original group as well as they begin to loose faith in one another. Just what was it that happened? Why are these people the way they are? Who is behind it all? And is Jonah the man who caused it or someone sent to help?

All of these questions are answered by the end of the film. Getting to that point makes for a fascinating journey down a dark road with side trips to the world of insanity along the way. While watching you just can't help but wonder what you would do under the same circumstances. Could you survive and would you want to in a world like this? And is it just this location or is it everywhere?

The entire group of actors pulls off what could have been an ill conceived movie that many will think is little more than just another zombie flick. But I will spoil one thing by telling you that these are not quite zombies here. The actors all bring a tremendous amount of reality to their characters making them believable and not just card board cutouts. The range of emotions from fear to confusion to hope, are displayed by each.

There are scenes in this movie that will stick with you and haunt your nightmares. But in the end the best thing this movie does is entertain. It makes you consider what you would do if places in the same situation. Most of all it tells a story that unveils as it progresses giving you just enough to hold your interest as it moves forward, never revealing anything too soon. What more could you ask for in a movie?

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THE RAID 2: BEST ACTION FILM, HANDS DOWN

If you were one of the many people to see the film THE RAID: REDEMPTION then you'll have some idea of what to expect with the sequel out this week on DVD. If you haven't seen the first film you can do fine with this one but you'll deprive yourself of the set up for what happens here. You'll also be short changing yourself if you're a fan of action films. Both films are tremendous. I would place the both in the top five action movies ever made. This is coming from someone who has seen ENTER THE DRAGON in the double digits too. Ignore the fact that the films were made in Indonesia by a Welsh director. Ignore the fact that they have subtitles (this new one does offer a dubbed version). Just rush to see these movies.

The first film focused on an elite team of 20 special ops police officers raiding a 30 story apartment building housing the criminals who have paid the top crime lord for protection. This crime lord lives on the top floor of that building. Before the team can get to him they're discovered and the crime lord lets it be known that anyone who can take out the team will be granted a life time stay in the building. Now the team is fighting for their lives against a building full of criminals.

THE RAID 2 picks up just hours after the first film. Hero Rama (Iko Uwais) has turned over audio tapes to the only policeman he trusts that will show a connection between the underworld and higher ups in the police force. But he's told it is just hearsay and it will take more. He is recruited to go undercover to get the proof they need to put down those who are deconstructing the police force. With his family put into protective custody Rama beats up a politician's son and is sent to prison. He's done this to get close to Uco, the son of the main crime lord now in charge. It's more than he bargained for, facing 3 years in prison to get the bad guy but he follows through.

While in prison he first ignores Uco. When a riot breaks out in the rain soaked mud drenched prison yard as a cover for Uco's assassination, Rama is the main person standing between the man he is pursuing and those who would have him dead. This is just the first of 19 various fight sequences in the film and is amazing to watch. The choreography used here, and in subsequent fights, rivals the most difficult ballet ever staged.

When he's finally released from prison, Rama is taken in by Uco and his father and given a position in their organization. He basically rides shotgun for Uco, giving him protection and becoming his enforcer. With each passing day he gets more and more information that he can use. At the same time he misses the fact that Uco and his father are not seeing things eye to eye. A rival named Bejo is trying to wedge his way into their organization. Using Uco as his pawn, he does all he can to bring down Uco's father and install Uco by starting a war with the Japanese crime organization.

If you've seen the first film you already recognize that there is more story going on here than in that film. This is not to say that it leaves the film lacking when it comes to action though. Characters like Baseball Bat Boy and Hammer Girl live up to their monikers when it comes to combat. And a final battle between Rama and his main combative rival takes place the grip you'll place on the edge of your seat might leave indentations. The story does move along from this and the film does have an ending but I won't give any more away.

While the violence in this film slides down to the extreme end of the scale it's unlike any action film ever seen. This is not the brightly colored blood spatter seen in classic kung fu movies nor is it the slow moving hand to hand combat seen in most David Carradine films. The gore here isn't put in just for the sake of gore but it's the natural consequence of actions taking place. Trust me when I say that a claw hammer is going to get messy when used as a weapon.

If you think you've witnessed some of the fastest martial arts sequences ever by seeing most Bruce Lee or Jackie Chan films you have another thing coming. How numerous stunt people were not killed just in the fight sequences is beyond belief. When you watch the extras and learn about the work the camera crew did that put themselves in danger it's a wonder anyone survived this film. And yet each and every bit of effort made in this movie shows on the screen. I said earlier both movies belong in the top five action films of all time. Know up front that they belong closer to the top than the bottom.

Don't hem haw around denying yourself the pleasure of this great action flick because it's in a foreign language. If you must, use the dubbing. But by all means make your way to a rental outlet or store and get a copy of this one. For myself I have no doubt that I'll be watching both multiple times. I'm betting you will as well.

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BLACK DYNAMITE THE SERIES: HILARIOUS ADULT CARTOON

There are many who think that just because a movie or show is a cartoon that it was intended for children. That wasn't the case when FRITZ THE CAT showed up. It also changed when the Cartoon Network delivered a new form of late night entertainment called Adult Swim. Cartoons on the network late at night told adult stories, had adult themes and often used adult language. Some were good, some terrible. BLACK DYNAMITE is fantastic.

If you've never seen the live action movie that this series is based on you need to find it quickly. It was one of the funniest films I'd seen in years. Imagine if Mel Brooks, the king of genre parody films, had taken on the blaxploitation films of the seventies. That's exactly what creator/actor Michael Jai White did with that film and he hit every single note to perfection. Fans of the film wanted more. How he decided to turn it into a cartoon I don't know but I'm glad he did. It meant more adventures involving the title character and that means laughs galore.

If you missed the movie let me get you up to speed. Black Dynamite is the lead character's name, an ex-CIA agent who came back to his old neighborhood to save it from The Man who had killed his brother, pumped heroin to kids and flooded the neighborhood with malt liquor. Dynamite was the ultimate blaxploitation hero, a kung fu master and all around bad dude, the only one who could save the day. The cartoon picks up where the movie left off and takes it to further extremes.

The world of Black Dynamite is filled with stereotypes that filled those movies from the seventies. Some concepts might upset a few uptight folks but the makers of this series aren't concerned about that. They just want to make you laugh. After all, the hero himself lives in a business he created called The Whorephanage. Yes, Black Dynamite wants to take care of orphans but he's also a stone cold pimp when he needs to be, complete with his own prostitutes. But that's not the only thing some will find offensive. Know up front that the series features a hero who beds down multiple women, swears, kills bad guys and makes fun of multiple concepts many would call racist that instead proves a joke is a joke. And yet he's a good guy saving numerous people. Coming from the same people behind THE BOONDOCKS you would expect nothing less.

No, this series is not for the faint of heart. It's not for those who feel the need to be offended by every little thing they see or hear. My guess is that even though the entire main production staff behind the film is made of black artists and performers there are even a few in the black community who would be upset with what appears on this series. Those behind it don't care. They understand that there are things to be concerned about when it comes to racism in this country but that at the same time if you claim everything revolves around that you lessen the impact of real racial issues that deserve notice. It embraces the stereotypes from those seventies films and makes them funny rather than offensive. Political correctness has no place in this show.

So what types of stories does the show do? One offers a look into the REAL Michael Jackson and discovers that he had evil plans for this world and the reason why that was to be. Another has one of Black Dynamite's sidekicks become a porn star in an attempt to find a serial killer taking out the biggest and best black male porn stars. Black Dynamite even finds himself forced to avenge his accountant after the IRS kills him while trying to collect back taxes he owes. Nothing is taboo for this group.

Through it all the look and feel of those classic blaxploitation films can be found, even if the series is animated. From the clothing worn by characters to the drawn sets that it takes place in, the show reeks of those movies in the most caring and respectful fashion. They were classic films and deserve to be recognized for the impact that they had. Here a tribute to them can be found and enjoyed, playing off of them but never really making fun of them.

A few words of caution about the series though. First if you are easily offended then by all means pass this by. If you don't mind an off color joke or ten then you'll find plenty to laugh at here. I would suggest you only watch it a few episodes at a time though. Multiple episodes are likely to leave you with stomach pains caused by excessive laughter. BLACK DYNAMITE the series is one of the funniest things I've ever seen. One can only hope that they have more in mind for this urban African-American hero.

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TIM'S VERMEER: DOCUMENTARY DONE RIGHT

I can't begin to tell you how much I loved this movie. It held me in its grip from start to finish, made me wonder just how someone could be so possessed to do what Tim Jenison did and then made me notice that I had just spent 80 minutes never looking at the clock to find out when the movie would end. I just enjoyed it from start to finish.

Narrated by Penn Jillette and directed by Teller (of Penn & Teller fame), the movie tells the story of Penn's friend Tim Jenison, an inventor and electronics whiz who loved the paintings of 17th century Dutch painter Johannes Vermeer. What intrigued him the most was the fact that Vermeer's paintings had an almost photographic appearance to them, something impossible to be done at that time since photography was years away from being developed. How had Vermeer accomplished this? Jenison set out to discover how.

Using the knowledge that was at hand at the time, Jenison decides that Vermeer must have used a series of mirrors and lenses to discover a way to paint as he did. Jenison constructs a small version of what he envisions Vermeer did and then paints a picture of his father in law from a photograph, even though he'd never painted anything at all in his life. The effect and painting that result is amazing. But that's on a smaller plain here, not near the size of the actual paintings that Vermeer did. So how did he do it?

This becomes the quest that Jenison then begins, a quest that takes him well over a year to finish and be filmed. When attempting to recreate Vermeer's painting "The Music Lesson", he begins by building the entire scene real size from scratch, using as many methods of recreating the actual items as possible. He goes so far as to research the way Vermeer would have made the paint that he used to create this work and follows those same sets of instructions to make his own paints. All of this works toward the single goal of trying to paint his own rendition of Vermeer's work or this time around, Tim's Vermeer.

This is perhaps one of the best made documentaries I've ever seen. It never gets dull, never gets boring no matter if at times you are simply watching someone paint. The entire process that Jenison goes through as he tries to figure out just how it was done and then the patience he uses to accomplish the same thing is mind boggling. While you enjoy each minute of the film it almost takes on a Christmas morning type quality as you wait to see the end product or if it can even be accomplished.

This film was nominated for best documentary last year and it's easy to see why. What's not easy to understand is how it lost. It is an amazing film that you won't want to miss and that you may want to revisit from time to time. That's something most documentaries can not lay claim to, multiple viewings. But this movie deserves that and more. On the downside it leaves you wondering what Jenison has up his sleeve next. It also makes you hope that both Penn and Teller do more items like this. Not only was this movie worth watching once, it is one that deserves a place on the front of your collection shelf.

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FRACKNATION: REAL JOURNALISM

I grew up in a time when true journalism was prevalent though not always the case. People held a certain amount of skepticism when listening to or reading the news. But for the most part journalist were intent of finding the truth of the matter, getting to it by any and all means. The same was true of documentary film makers. Then Watergate happened. It wasn't that Woodward and Bernstein didn't find the truth, but in becoming the center of attention in that scandal journalism went from intrepid reporters seeking the truth to journalists trying to take center stage and become celebrities instead of reporters.

The same thing happened to documentary film makers. Gone were the days of movies that ranged from interesting to completely boring and in their place were films made by people with agendas instead of those seeking the truth. Sure, the Disney nature films we grew up with had set pieces in them but there was no harm or attack being made with those films. Today's documentary's instead follow the example led by Michael Moore where no matter what the reality is you simply cut things to fit your agenda and leave the rest on the cutting room floor. If it doesn't suit your needs, then it is filed away where no one can find it. In essence, the truth is out there but hidden by the very people who claim to want to show you the truth.

That being said I didn't know what to expect when I watched FRACKNATION. I went in wondering if I was going to get yet another movie that claimed to be a documentary while doing nothing more than pushing its agenda. There is still the possibility that this is exactly what we find but with the way the story it tells unfolds, with the facts that can be found these days on the internet, I was left feeling that I was actually getting reality her, getting the truth.

Journalist Philem McAleer sets out after seeing the film GASLAND, a documentary about the dangers of fracking, to discover if what they've shown is true or not. With this country's dependency on oil it would seem that finding other ways to discover fuel sources would be a good thing. The movie GASLAND shows the damage and danger involved with fracking, highlighted by a scene in the film where a family suing over fracking shows the film makers how their tap water catches in fire when a flame is placed near it, a truly astounding sight to see. The movie takes the side of environmentalists who claim that fracking is the most evil of all things in existence.

As McAleer delves deeper into the items presented in that movie, he soon discovers that there are blatant misrepresentations and some out and out lies being told. The biggest one focuses around that ready for viewing video bite which was picked up by so many news outlets, the flaming tap water. It turns out that the tap water of numerous people in the location it was filmed with actually does, on occasion, light up when ignited. The thing is it has been doing it for years, many prior to when fracking was going on. This would mean that fracking had nothing to do with what we were witnessing even though it was being called the villain responsible for it.

McAleer goes to a Q & A session with the director and star of that documentary, Josh Fox. When he gets the chance to ask Fox questions about the validity of the facts he cites in the film, Fox attempts to turn the tables and portray McAleer as being uninformed while at the same time never answering any of the questions put to him. It displays him as being disingenuous at best and a fraud at worst. But this is merely the beginning of the film. There is much more about Mr. Fox that the film brings out as it progresses.

Taking the various items posed in the GASLAND film, McAleer goes through them one at a time and disproves them. In so doing he doesn't necessarily promote fracking, though one could see where it is not near the demon it is portrayed as by environmentalists, but he does show that with some money, a camera and a will to deceive a new generation of journalists and documentary film makers will lie and twist things to the point that what the end product becomes is not a dose of reality but pure propaganda.

The main thing that you should walk away from this film wondering isn't about fracking but about the film makers out there today. The question I was left with was why would someone who was trying to inform me, to present an actual problem to me, feel the need to manipulate the facts, to blatantly lie, to misinform, who would use any and all means necessary to alter those facts to suit their needs to convince me of their cause? If they are willing to lie and change facts then why would I believe anything they had to say? In an overzealous need to push their agenda they instead push me away and cause me to doubt what they have to say.

It goes further than just this movie and the one it focuses on. When you look online for reviews of this film you find that the ones giving it the lowest marks never discuss the facts presented by McAleer. Instead they attempt character assassination by calling him names, try to portray him as a paid employee of big oil companies and ignore the fact that their hero out and out lied about so many things. They display an attitude of the ends justify the means.

This movie, rather than portraying fracking as a cure all (even though in the end it does support it), shows the state of documentary film making and news reporting in this country. Network news programs willing to grab up any video clips that support a story they are doing without delving any deeper than the descriptions given by those who shot the story display shoddy journalism. Documentary film makers who feel it fine to lie and alter facts show that they've stepped away from making documentaries and are more concerned with self promotion and seeking adulation than in making a purely objective film.

FRACKNATION is good in so many ways. It makes its points in compelling fashion while entertaining at the same time. It does take a side of the issue but not to the point of ignoring most facts or using it as an attack piece on groups, even though it does take Mr. Fox to task for the way he does things. At the heart of it what it does is make you hunger for more information. It makes you want to find the absolute truth about the subject of fracking. That is what a good documentary should be doing, seeking the truth.

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OPERATION PETTICOAT: WHO COULD FORGET THE PINK SUB?

One of my favorite things about DVD is that I now have the chance to watch movies that I loved in the past without having to wait for them to appear on TV. For you younger folks, there was a time when you didn't have access to almost any movie via tape, disc or streaming. Instead you had to wait for them to show on TV without the ability to record them, some times only on the late show. I know, it sounds barbaric. And yet in reality it wasn't all that long ago.

Better yet is that there are some companies out there who don't think that classic films of the past should be ignored and are willing to release them to DVD in cleaned up condition worthy of what some would call better films. For fans though it's great to see them released in general. One company bringing back some great movies is Olive Films. I've just watched one of their releases, OPERATION PETTICOAT, and they've done a good job here.

If you've never seen the film, do so and have some fun. It tells the story of Lt. Commander Matt Sherman (Cary Grant), a sub commander who watches his first sub nearly destroyed in an aerial attack while the sub is docked. Pleading with the island's commander, he finagles two weeks to get the sub up and running with a skeleton crew. Willing to take on any extra crew members to be found, the island commander sends along Lt. Nick Holden (Tony Curtis), a somewhat pampered officer more prone to working the social scene than actually being on a war time vessel. But while he doesn't appear to be a part of the crew, his services certainly are.

It seems that Holden has a knack for finding the necessary parts needed to get the sub up and operational. His underhanded abilities tend to slice through the bureaucratic red tape that so many others find themselves tangled in. That being the case the sub suddenly finds itself ready to sail as their deadline approaches...even if it means the island commander suddenly finds his office without a wall.

As the sub makes its way to the nearest island in hopes of picking up some more supplies, they instead find the island airstrip bombed and five female nursing officers stranded. Holden offers them a ride on the sub much to the chagrin of Lt. Cmmdr. Sherman. The obvious problems between men stuck on a sub with a group of women onboard makes for some humorous moments, none of which I will ruin here.

Another problem rises later in the film, and if you've seen it before you'll recall it easily. When a base coat of primer is needed at their island stop they find they don't have enough of one color to coat it all. Instead they have to combine the red primer with white primer before painting it. You can guess what follows. When the island is attacked before they can paint over the primer, well, they end up with a reputation they'd rather do without.

The movie has some truly hilarious moments involving each featured character on board this sub. There is not a bad performance from any of the actors here with Grant proving he was still a viable leading man in the 60s when this movie was made. Curtis is at his good looking best here playing the affable con-man Holden to the hilt.

The transfer of this film doesn't have that far too clean look that some classic films have these days, instead looking much like it would if it were simply seen on TV. And that's actually a good thing. Movies like these don't need the over-polished look. Instead give us what we have here, a great looking movie that actually looks like it was made when it was made. Videophiles will have one complaint about the film since there are no extras. But with so much to watch being released this just means you can get on to your next movie rather than watch 3 hours of extras on a movie that is only 2 hours long.

In the end this movie is one that offers some great entertainment. It makes me long for these kinds of movies again, movies that were made about the war without having to take a side or political stance. Instead it showed sailors who were there to do their job plain and simple. It's a movie that offers entertainment instead of propaganda. It's fun to watch and I know that I'll do so with this movie again and again. This is one worth adding to your collection.

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SOUTHERN COMFORT: BAYOU BATTLE

I've been a fan of Walter Hill for as long as I can remember. While some of the movies of his I've loved never became the hits they should have (STREETS OF FIRE) others have shown that he is quite the bankable director (48 HOURS). His movies often depicted a world where men were men and weren't afraid to be what they were in a world where people seemed to want to soften them instead. It made his films ones that guys loved and revere to this day. A testosterone fueled battle was at the core of his film SOUTHERN COMFORT.

The movie revolves around a weekend training exercise for the Louisiana National Guard. This gathering of weekend warriors is set to travel from point A to point B over that weekend. The problems come from the combination of characters in the group. Their leader is Poole (Peter Coyote), a no nonsense ex-military man destined to be a leader. His second in command is Casper (Les Lannom), a man who follows orders. While this pair seems to understand the need for their group to follow commands it is the rest of the crew that forms a band of misfits and screwballs that will lead to nothing but problems.

Reece and Stuckey (Fred Ward and Lewis Smith) are two stereotypical rednecks with little desire to rise above the life they've chosen. Simms and Cribbs (Franklyn Seals and T.K. Carter) are two black soldiers in the group with completely different personalities, the first always on edge and the latter far too laid back. Bowden (Alan Autry) offers that intensely gung ho attitude up front but crumbles in a clinch. Spencer (Keith Carradine) is the calm and collected guy who knows the best path to take but since he seems a smooth operator rarely is listened to. And at the end is Hardin (Powers Boothe), a transfer from Texas who just wants to get his time in the Guard over with so he can move on with his life.

As this rag tag group sets out they discover their map is out of date and the waters have risen where they need to cross. Finding a set of boats and trapped animals they decide to borrow the boats from the Cajun trappers and leave a note explaining this. As they cross the trappers return and while watching them Stuckey fires his machine gun, loaded with blanks, in their direction thinking how funny it is. In return, the Cajuns shoot and kill Poole. Bowden tips all the boats and the group is left with a few less needed items (like the map), a dead body and a fear that the men will be tracking them down now.

What follows is a combination of stories, one being the Cajuns trying to get to the men and take them all down for what they consider an opening salvo in their direction. The second story is the bigger one as we watch the group implode with some characters trying to become the dominant male, the alpha dog, the leader of the pack while the actual men who have that ability to lead lay back and don't show that skill until push comes to shove. Not only do these men have to worry about the trappers following them, they have to worry about what one of their own might do to jeopardize their lives as well.

As the group gets picked off one at a time you begin to wonder if any of them will survive this weekend. With no way to contact their home base and several days before anyone will find them missing, they trek through the dangerous bayou that's unfamiliar terrain for them but home for the trappers. Their attempt to physically find their way out to civilization is one harrowing journey but it's the search for being civilized that makes for a more interesting story.

Shout Factory has done a fantastic job of offering a great print of this movie that is sure to please those waiting for a blu-ray edition of this film. While many were angered by Fox's treatment of PREDATOR for making the film appear too clean filled with altered images, this film offers the graininess of film from that time in parts while offering as sharp an image as one would have expected from those days. Eighties film fans will rejoice.

There are no bad performances in this film and stand outs are offered from Carradine and Boothe in the main leads. The rest of the cast is up to the standards set by these two and make their characters believable as well. Perhaps the only noticeable flaw in the film is that at times the characters seem a bit dated but then again as I've told people before, you must always try and place yourself in the time period when a movie was made rather than watch it from through the eyes of the time period you live in. It may only be 30 odd years since the film came out but that's a lot of change.

In the end what you have here is a dynamite action film with more meat surrounding the bone in terms of story that these films are used to. It's a Walter Hill film at its best and isn't one that you will want to just watch but will probably want to add to your collection.

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