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BLACK VENUS, IT, THE NAVIGATOR: A MEDIEVAL ODYSSEY, TIDELAND, THE HOT ROCK, DIAMONDS OF KILAMANDJARO, GOLDEN TEMPLE AMAZONS, THE HIRED HAND, DAY OF THE JACKAL, and DUCKMAN THE COMPLETE SERIES

Thursday, June 30, 2011

SEASON OF THE WITCH: WHICH WITCH IS WHICH?

Nicolas Cage has taken a beating from critics over the past few years. First off due to the number of films he’s made in recent years and secondly because they don’t live up to the standards enforced by critics who are only interested in Oscar worthy projects for him to star in. The fact is that being an actor isn’t just about awards; it’s about being employed and working. And Cage always works when he makes a movie no matter what the topic. It’s for this reason that his fans love him and why they won’t be disappointed with SEASON OF THE WITCH.

Cage plays Behmen, a knight involved in the Crusades when the film opens. Along with his trusted friend Felson (Ron Perlman), they pair carve a path through history surviving one battle after the next serving the Church as it strived to cut a bloody trail through non-believers. After over 10 years the pair has had enough, questioning whether it is truly in God’s service they are employed or simply that of an organization who wants control over all they can see. With the death of a young woman on his hands, Behmen and Felson leave and head home.

Problems follow them when they arrive in a small town only to be recognized as deserters. Thrown into a dungeon and waiting trial, they are saved when the Cardinal calls them to see him. Dying of the plague (as are most of the townspeople), he entrusts them with the task of taking a woman accused of being the witch that brought this plague to an abbey where the monks there will hold a trial for her. If found guilty, they will sentence her to death and end the plague.

Accompanying them on this journey is a priest named Debelzaq (Stephen Campbell Moore), another knight named Eckhart (Ulrich Thompson), a guide named Hagamar (Stephen Graham) and an alter boy named Kay (Robert Sheehan). Claire Foy plays “the girl” being transported and supposed a witch. But as their journey moves forward you wonder first if it could even be possible that this woman is a witch or simply a person in the wrong place at the wrong time. It seems the entire blame is a result of her showing up as the plague began, not just in this town but another as well. With little more proof than that one wonders why she was even accused.

But Cage took on the job with one demand, that the trial is a fair one and not just someone killed because of convenience. It’s a job he takes seriously and one that requires him not to just protect his fellow men in arms but the young woman as well, from various beasts along to road to fellow members on his company.

As the film progresses numerous attacks fall upon the travelers. At one time they are witness to shadows once the girl escapes and leads them on a chase that results in the first death of one of the members. Another falls when a group of wild wolves surrounds the group before they can move to safety. And with each attack the viewer is left wondering if the girl is responsible or not, or does it just seem like she’s a witch?

Many have taken to task the end battle of this film that happens in the abbey. I had no problem with it (but won’t reveal it here so as to not ruin your viewing). They found it a let down and more often than not because those who hate it wanted more shots taken at religion. In short they wanted a different movie. I suggest they watch BLACK DEATH, another movie concerning the black plague that did just that (and that I wasn’t a fan of). But for those who like Cage and Perlman as well, you’ll get exactly what you would expect: an enjoyable, entertaining mystery wrapped up in a world of religion and supernatural that keeps you wondering, is she or isn’t she?

The effects are satisfying (especially at the end), the photography is great, even more so since much of the film takes place at night or in darkened areas, the directing is steady and the acting takes what could have been cartoon characters and fills them with life. The movie doesn’t go out of its way to make it seem like hard core reality, instead relying on the story to tell a tale.

If you like Cage in films like GHOST RIDER and DRIVE ANGRY then you’ll find yourself enjoying this film as well. If it’s the more serious Oscar hungry actor you’re looking for them perhaps not. For me, I always want a film to entertain more than anything else and this one does it in spades.

MADE IN DAGENHAM: A STORY THAT NEEDS TOLD

There are a number of movies made that feature the real life stories of situations and people involved in them. It may be true that these stories are a bit embellished in an attempt to compact them into anywhere from 90 to 120 minutes, but the story at the heart always remains the same. And when it’s a good story it makes the viewer want to find out more. Such is the case with MADE IN DAGENHAM.

Set in 1968, the ladies at the Ford plant in Dagenham, England, work just as hard as the men there. Their jobs may be different, but its work, it’s difficult and they sweat the same as the men do. The problem is they don’t get paid the same. When their local union rep Albert (Bob Hoskins) talks to them about it, they decide to go on a 24 hour strike.

The 187 women do so with the support of their fellow workers, the 55,000 men who work there as well at first. They’ve been told that the reason for the lower pay was the due to the scales established by work performance studies. When they learn the truth, that it is simply because they are female, the women don’t take to well to their situation. Instead they decide to continue the strike longer.

The woman leading this charge is Rita O’Grady (Sally Hawkins), a mother and wife who finds herself drawn into the role of leader unwillingly at first. As shop steward she usually drops back to allow her friend to keep things on track. But with the convincing of Albert who sees her as a natural leader, she takes on the job of seeing to it that their grievances are met.

The one thing that’s interesting here is that it’s not just the factory that chooses to abuse these women. Their own union does so as well, agreeing to put their case on a back burner in an effort to get other grievances dealt with first. And as the film progresses, you see the upper echelon of the union choose to protect his own deals, protecting himself rather than stand up for what’s right for his members.

But the strike takes its toll on the members. To being with the loss in pay affects all their way of life. And when the stockpiled goods these women made runs dry, rather than give in the company just lays off everyone. This leads to a great deal of resentment among the workers, mostly the men. They seem to have forgotten the women that stood behind them each time they went on strike, including Rita’s husband.

Ford plays hardball with these women, doing their best to break the strike. Their greatest fear is that if they change their rules here, they’ll have to do so all over the world. The costs would be high and they aren’t willing to do so. So much so that their representative even meets with British Secretary of State Barbara Mason (Miranda Richardson) and basically threatens to pull out all of their factories if she doesn’t make this stop.

The struggle seen here is not only interesting but inspiring as well. These women were not striking for some penny ante change 5 years down the line in a contract but for the simple right to be paid what they were worth, exactly what the men were being paid. And the sacrifices they made to get there were astonishing and painful.

Keep in mind, this is the 60s and at the time women were not being paid equally not just here but anywhere. Even though I grew up during this time I was stunned to think it hadn’t happened yet. How could it be that equal pay did not equal wages? Even more amazing is to consider the fact that in some cases it hasn’t changed.

The film could be one of those drawn out boring biopics that seem to take forever to get to the point. Instead it starts with the discussion of the problem and moves it forward, focusing not just on the strike but how it affects everyone. This makes for an interesting film that holds your attention throughout and never gets boring.

The acting is above par. Sally Hawkins does a great job as Rita, a woman who simply does what’s right. She doesn’t set out to be a hero, she reluctantly takes on the role of one, but when she sets her mind to it she follows through to the end. The rest of the cast does an equally outstanding job, showing varying examples of the women involved and how they cope with their day to day struggle.

I think the best thing about this film was its showing that there could be wrong on both sides of the coin. Rather than depict the company as only bad guy in the film they offer us a look at the fact that even the union at the time was unwilling at first to help their own members. Its and even handed look at the problem and, as I said, amazing to think that it took until that time for equal pay to be even considered.

The movie is one that does what a film should do. It entertains, it informs and it doesn’t put you to sleep while combining both of those items. For something that’s a joy to watch and that educates, make sure that you rent this movie. It will be worth your while.

BARNEY’S VERSION: A LIFE OF LOVE

BARNEY’S VERSION is one of those movies that critics love. They talk about the depth of the story, the fantastic acting, the way the movie felt and looked. And for once those who would discuss these and others items of the film have it right. This is one fine movie.

Paul Giamatti stars as Barney Panofsky, a studio producer looking back at his life. When it opens we see him doing his best to disrupt the life of his ex-wife by calling her husband at 3AM. From there we see him stopping at his favorite bar only to be hassled by an ex-police detective who’s just released a book about the murder of Barney’s best friend Boogie (Scott Speedman), a murder that the detective still believes Barney committed. But the body was never found. This confrontation leads to Barney’s reflecting on his life.

We’re taken back to the early 70s when Barney was living in Europe surrounding himself with bohemian friends all interested in art. But this isn’t a world Barney can be a part of, just an observer of. He marries a free spirit believing he is the father of her child only to part ways with her once the baby is lost and he discovers there was no way he was the father. On a binge with his friend Boogie, he misses a message and goes to his wife only to find she’s committed suicide.

Barney returns to Canada where he gets work with his uncle and eventually becomes a studio head. Along the way he is introduced to a young woman who catches his eye played by Minnie Driver. This woman is a non-stop talker whose father is a wealthy man. He also possesses the attitudes of such a man, greatly displayed when a dinner for the two prior to their marrying is held. Barney’s father Izzy (Dustin Hoffman), an ex-cop, is invited to dinner only to have Driver’s father offer him angry glances and demeaning comments.

At the wedding things are going as planned. Barney’s friends are there, the party is in full swing and much heavy drinking follows. While watching the hockey game at the reception, and after far too many drinks, Barney is told that his father in law has made comments about his own father. Heading to have it out with the man, he gets a glimpse of a woman that he finds amazing. After the confrontation with his father in law finishes, he meets this woman, Miriam (Rosamund Pike). Enamored with her, he follows her to the train station and asks her to run off with him. She turns him down but remains in his heart.

The story continues involving all of these characters but to attempting to describe the story without giving away too much is just ridiculous. Suffice to say that Barney does lead and interesting life. And he eventually finds an amazing love that stays with him forever. But with each step he takes, Barney seems destined to screw things up. He doesn’t want to, it just seems that he always takes the wrong turn.

The film won an Oscar for make up and it was well deserved. The progression in age for Giamatti is amazing to watch. In one of the extras he discusses how much it helped his performance, giving him a reference point with which to grab hold of his character at that time in his life. Giamatti also won the Golden Globe for his performance here and he deserved that as well. This is one of the best things he’s ever done.

The film may be a bit long for some, may take a while to unwind that today’s fast paced movie goers might not want to sit for. But in doing so you’ll find a full, rich story that is better than most told these days. And in the end you’ll discover a few truly touching moments and that at the heart of it all is a love story that’s as sweet as they come.

THE WARRIOR’S WAY: GREENSCREEN GALORE

I suppose it’s not right to let the cat out of the bag that this film is mostly shot on green screen. Then again there is almost no way you don’t notice it from the first moments of the film till the last. Does it make it bad? No, but it does make it different looking than most, actually in a good way.

THE WARRIROR’S WAY takes place in the 1900s and tells the story of Yang (Dong-gun Jang), an Asian warrior who has achieved the rank of the best swordsman in I assume is China. Trained since birth for this goal, his job is to eliminate the members of another clan until they are all dead. His goal changes when the last member turns out to be a baby, a child he cannot bring himself to kill. This puts him on the wrong side of the clan and he heads east towards America to start a new life for himself.

He settles in a small town out west, a dirt covered little spot that’s deteriorating and offers home to a traveling circus that stopped and stayed. An old friend of Yang’s had set up shop here but passed away before Yang could arrive. Yang is given the laundry business that his friend owned and trained by a young woman named Lynne (Kate Bosworth).

Lynne had been receiving training from Yang’s friend in the hope that she could fulfill her desire for revenge on the man that killed her family. Known as the Colonel (Danny Huston), he killed her parents before her eyes and was set to rape her was well until she tossed a pan of hot oil in his face. Shot in the back and left for dead, Lynne survived with the hope of killing the Colonel one day.

Stand outs in the town include the town’s “mayor”, a black midget named Eight Ball (Tony Cox) and the town drunk Ron (Geoffrey Rush), a man with a secret all his own. Together they’ve been trying to erect a giant ferris wheel with the hope of making this town a place people will seek out.

But the only people who come seem to be the Colonel and his men who show up one day not long after Yang arrives. Determined not to use his sword since it would magically send a signal to those who seek to destroy him, he finds himself with little or no choice in the matter.

As the film moves forward, the townsfolk realize that they must take a stand if they are to survive. Even Ron must confront the ghosts of his past to help. Before long the town isn’t just taking on the Colonel but the martial arts warriors who seek to destroy Yang as well. And as with all good western’s a showdown is just around the horizon.

The film attempts to mix together the western and martial arts genres and for the most part does and admirable job. Revenge has always been something that’s played big in both genres and here it combines with two different stories that cross paths.

As stated earlier, nearly the entire film was shot on green screen with backgrounds and visuals added later. This gives each scene an eerie sort of feel and look to it, but doesn’t harm it in any way. The film SUCKER PUNCH was done almost the same way but where it was distracting in that film it feels more natural here.

Fans of the fantasy, western and martial arts genres will find this one entertaining. They’ll enjoy the action. Add in a touch of romance here (and it’s a small touch at that) and you have a nice rental for the night.

LOUIE SEASON ONE: I DON’T GET IT

So I’m starting here with that simple statement, I don’t get it. And I just don’t. I watched this series just released on DVD and found that I just didn’t get the attraction or rave reviews the show has garnered. For a comedy show about a comedian I found it offered very few laughs.

LOUISE tells the story of comedian Louie (played by Louis C.K.). Just divorced and a doting father, it tells of his everyday life and what happens in it. Some moments are touching, some funny and some just perplexing. But it’s his life and so we watch what happens. We try to relate to the situations he finds himself in. And short of living in New York I don’t think many people do find themselves in most of these situations.

The series covers such topics as dating after divorce, trying to raise kids, having fights with your friends and more. Intermingled with the stories are a few comedic moments but for the most part each episode just feels dry and lacking something. Laughs perhaps?

The series has received all sorts of accolades and comparisons to other series like CURB YOUR ENTHUSIASM. I might be in the minority here but that’s a series I’ve never seen. And if it’s anything like this one I doubt I’d ever want to.

So what is it about series like this that make people rush to praise them and talk about how wonderful they are? Why is it that shows concerning themselves with the miseries of someone trying to get on with life are entertaining? All I saw here was a man who had great friends but had trouble with a love life or a life at home. Isn’t that the life that most people lead? Aren’t we all having problems we have to confront and find solutions for daily? And if so and I’m living this, why would I find it entertaining watching someone else do what I do every day? Well I mean with the exception that I’m not making nearly as much money or on TV each week.

I’ve seen Louis C.K.’s stand up act and know he can be quite entertaining and funny. But there’s a difference between writing a stand up routine that is fine tuned over so many weeks on the road and trying to make up new jokes or funny antics on a weekly basis. The episodes I made it through here felt like they were one joke ideas that entire episodes were then built around. A single joke with plenty of filler. It would be as if a regular hamburger were placed on a Big Mac bun and covered with double toppings. Sure the meat was there but it was so covered by other items that you couldn’t enjoy it.

I don’t know. Perhaps over time I will get what everyone else is saying about shows like these. Perhaps I won’t want to. Until then I’ll watch things that make me laugh, make me cry, keep me on the edge of my seat or make me jump out of it. As for now I think I’ll pass by this one. You should too unless you like something so far off the wall that you can’t even find that wall.

CYRUS, MIND OF A SERIAL KILLER: ALL GUTS AND GORY

It seems the easiest films to make these days are gore filled horror films. Toss in a few naked breasts, some blood soaked bodies, a heap of intestines and a redneck and voile a horror film is born. Many young film makers are up front and tell you that they made a horror film first because these exploitation films are easier to make, finance and to get distributed, this ensuring the fast track in their careers. The only problem is the glut of these films with few achieving any sort of respectable status only leaves viewers with the same old same old more often than not. With the exception of a few nice touches, CRYUS: MIND OF A SERIAL KILLER is just that.

The film opens with Danielle Harris as Maria, a young reporter for a cable show called LAST STEPS that focuses on gruesome criminal cases, and her cameraman off to visit a small town where a number of women were last seen. All proposed victims of a serial killer, the film cuts between their interviews with a couple of psychologists specializing in serial killers and a meeting with a man who says he knows who the killer was.

Emmett (Lance Henriksen) was a friend to Cyrus, a man he says was the killer. But his views on Cyrus are far different than most would think. After offering Harris proof that Cyrus was the killer (a boxful of driver’s licenses from the victims) he offers to tell her the story as long as the video footage is not used and the town not named. He then sits down to tell her the story of Cyrus.

Years back when Cyrus moved to this town his wife berated him, angry that he chose to purchase a farm with their money in the hopes of making a new life for the two of them and their newborn. She had dreams of the big city and this was exactly what she was trying to leave behind. Things between them were never the same and while he tried to make a living and take care of them, she became the town floozy.

The farm fails but Cyrus discovers he has a knack at hunting. He decides to open a small roadside café serving fresh game but on opening day, his wife takes a salesman back to their place for an afternoon rendezvous. Caught in the act, Cyrus murders the two and then the baby as well to prevent him from experiencing the cold cruel world. As a way to dispose of the bodies, Cyrus grinds them up and sells them as burgers he calls “roadkill” at the café. The meat is a hit with the townsfolk and soon people are coming from all over to taste these delicious burgers.

It all comes to an end when a trio of girls shows and become his next victims. The one has just had a fight with her boyfriend over his infidelity and he comes looking for them. When he doesn’t get the answers he expects, he calls in the state police.

The movie doesn’t cover much new ground. We have the stereotypical redneck who loves to hunt, the roadside café serving people on the menu which comes straight out of the TEXAS CHANISAW playbook. Our killer Cyrus is a man of few words, wronged by his wife and given a wide berth by the sympathetic townsfolk, especially Emmett his only friend. It’s a typical fill in the numbers film with an ending that horror fans will see coming minutes into the film.

So what’s good and bad about it? On the bad side there is some poor acting, set design and costumes in the start. The early scenes of Cyrus have him wearing bib overalls (a Hollywood depiction of redneck if there ever was one). That’s not the bad part, the bad part is that these seem just off the rack which seems odd for someone whose been working in them. The actress playing his wife, which takes place some 30 years ago, has a nude scene which displays a large tattoo that covers most of her back. Suggestion for actresses: if you want roles that involve being someone in the past, don’t get the tattoo – most women didn’t have them back then.

For me one of the worst things is the whole horror porn aspect of it. The name came about a few years back when several movies came out featuring victims being slowly tortured in horror films like this one, most notably HOSTEL. I’ve never been fond of the genre and find it more disturbing than anything else. How does anyone find entertainment in watching someone tortured|? Perhaps I am in the minority but to me these aren’t horror films, they’re voyeur films for twisted minds.

The good parts? More than any other is Lance Henriksen. The man has a certain quality about him that makes him believable in almost anything he does. Here he comes off as a quiet man who just wants folks to leave the town alone and let go of the serial killer story that ended and should remain closed. Throughout the film we have his voice over narration of the story we’re watching. He has a great voice and lends a certain amount of honesty in the way he speaks, you believe everything he’s saying.

The film also offers a few touches of something new in the way the story unfolds and in the tale it tells. Not much but enough to make note of it.

On the whole I’ve seen worse horror films, many in this genre, but CYRUS isn’t as bad as some. There are moments of inspiration in it and anything that gives a part this good to Lance Henriksen deserves mention. I wouldn’t say I would recommend it completely but for fans of the genre you won’t be disappointed. Others should step lightly into this twisted world.

WILD CHERRY: DESTINED FOR DIRECT TO DVD

Some movies are made that you just know will end up going direct to DVD. Sure, some deserve better but, as with WILD CHERRY, some deserve it.

The film opens with teens describing their first sexual experience. It’s part of a class documentary being shot by Katlyn Chase (Rumer Willis), one of three best friends the movie focuses on. Helen (Tania Raymonde) and Trish (Kristin Cavallare) round out the trio who seem obsessed with discussing their burgeoning sexual awareness. That makes it sound better than it is. What they really discuss is losing their virginity and the rush to do so. Only Helen is holding out for a touch of romance for her first experience.

Things take a twist when it’s discovered that the boys on the football team have a book and a tradition passed down since 1953. The books features a list of girls and hooks up members of the team as they must each take the virginity of one of the girls. Failure to do so will result in a losing team. The things boys will do for team spirit!

When the girls find out they attempt to organize the rest of the females on the campus of Benjamin Dover High (Ben Dover…get it?) to not put out for the males. They’re not concerned about the teams scoring average on the field, but they intend to stop their scoring off the field.

Discussions of masturbation, orgasms and attempts to break down the walls erected by these girls follow. Such “hilarious” moments as sperm ice cubes and a punch bowl filled with Viagra just want to make you slap your knee laughing. Okay that was sarcasm, more funny than most of the scenes found here.

I suppose this movie could be considered harmless by some but the truth is if this is where the world of comedy is going we’re in trouble here folks! It’s as if they’ve taken the worst that films like PORKY’S or AMERICAN PIE had to offer and thought those were the moments that made those film funny. It wasn’t!

The acting here is decent enough and Rob Schneider (whose likeness on the cover is being used to help sell this film) is wasted as the father of Helen. His moments in the film are by far the best and actually show that he’s a better actor than most give him credit for.

I can’t recommend this film to anyone with the exception of hormonal young teens seeking out something to giggle at. And even those will have a hard time finding anything to laugh at here. It really is that bad.

One last piece of proof. This is supposed to be a trophy winning football team on display here. And yet the stands for their school are the most ancient and unsafe looking around, not to mention barely enough to hold a single class of a high school let alone an entire school and town. Not only that the stands aren’t even full. This is low budget at its worst. I mean come on, rent some mannequins if nothing else to make them look full. Then again there are more fans in the seats than perhaps ever entered a theater to watch this movie.

A WOMAN, A GUN AND A NOODLE SHOP: COEN CLASSIC GOES ASIAN

In 1984 two film making brothers, Ethan and Joel Cohen, bust on the scene with a film called BLOOD SIMPLE. The film offered a philandering wife, a sleazy bar owner and a man who’d kill for money. Stylishly made it put the Cohen brothers on the map and led to a string of hits that culminated last year with TRUE GRIT. It also resulted in being remade in China under the name A WOMAN, A GUN AND A NOODLE SHOP.

The movie this time around changes not just locations but time period as well. Taking place in the not too distant past, a woman purchases a gun during the opening sequence. She is the wife of Wang, the owner of the noodle shop and a woman unhappy in her marriage. As we find out, she was purchased and nightly punished by her husband, Wang. It’s little wonder she’s taken up with one of his employees, Li.

The movie shifts back and forth from drama to comedy depending on the circumstances and actors involved. Li comes off as a bit of a buffoon, always concerned that the boss will find out about their indiscretion and do him harm. The wife (as she is known) shows less concern and more of a plotting attitude, not planning on killing her husband but still attempting to find a way out of the marriage and into the arms of Li.

As for Wang he appears to be an older man who knows his wealth buys him power. So much so that when he learns of the affair between his wife and Li, he asks a policeman/solider named Zhang to kill them both for a fee. They discuss the amount and Wang goes to his safe to retrieve the money for Zhang who sees just how much the safe holds.

The culmination of these events, the purchase of the gun, the affair, the planned murder and what happens to each of these characters makes for an interesting story. But what makes the film better than most isn’t just the tale but the arresting visuals used. The reddish dirt covered hills around the shop, the deep blue skies with pure white clouds, even the night time sequences all seem to pop off the screen with some amazing camera work.

Director Yimou Zhang is well known for his films like RAISE THE RED LANTERN, HERO and HOUSE OF FLYING DAGGERS, each having the same sort of visual appeal. He doesn’t disappoint here with some amazing things to see and experience. The colors are the brightest I’ve seen on film and work well, everything from the costumes to the setting.

The actors all come off good as well; even through the barrier of language (the film is in Chinese with English sub titles). Keeping in mind these characters live in a time very different from our own, they each display characteristics that are original rather than simply playing them as they’ve been done before.

On the whole I would recommend this movie to anyone who hasn’t seen a film from China yet. There is a whole world of wonder to be experienced out there. Forget the washed out visuals seen in tons of poorly made kung fu films in the past, the doors have opened for something different from this country.