Strike Back: Vengeance (Season 3) – when a billionaire acquires four nuclear triggers in order to re-shape Africa, only section 20 can stop him. Continuing with the UK/US collaboration, this takes everything that worked about ‘Project Dawn’ and made it all bigger/louder/better. Every episode is wall to wall action; with dozens of set pieces, hundreds of deaths, and a load of whiz-bang sex scenes. The entire season is 100mph, and it’s simply great fun. The characters feel more rounded, the leads’ chemistry is fantastic, and it’s very professionally made – but things like ‘character development’, ‘plot’, and ‘direction‘ are background noise to the explosions, gunfights, stunt driving, and spec ops that march the show forward. It’s hard to believe that such a ridiculously intense level of action (huge set pieces every 10 mins or so) can be done on a TV budget – the 10 episodes are paired off into FIVE 90-minute long mini missions that run together. In a world of toned down and heavily edited 12-rated action films, the swearing, sex, and sensational action makes this feel like something from ‘the good old days’. Completely knowing, and aimed directly at young male action fans, Strike Back Vengeance is a show that only really does one thing (infinite ammo, high-octane action turned up to 11), but does it brilliantly – making it a truly unmissable show for action fans
The Swinging Cheerleaders: an investigative journalist infiltrates a cheerleading team for an article, but ends up uncovering an even bigger story. Most interestingly, this film is made by exploitation master Jack Hill (Big Bird Cage, Coffy, Foxy Brown – and straight after those films) trying to avoid becoming a one-trick pony with ‘Blaxploitation‘ or ‘Women In Prison‘ films. Very much a snapshot of the times, every character is ‘stock’ / stereotypical, and the various plot threads are relatively straight forward. Disappointingly, this film is way more tame that you’d expect from Jack Hill, and a film called ‘The Swinging Cheerleaders’. It’s title and marketing pitch it as a sequel to ‘The Cheerleaders’ (a raunchy comedy), but this one’s a completely different beast: it’s not exploitation, or even a sex-comedy, but feels more like an educational piece about college / sex / gambling / drugs / match fixing. Think watered-down Roger Corman picture, or heavily censored Russ Meyer picture. Although The Swinging Cheerleaders is a well made and entertaining picture; it all feels a bit rushed and compromised.
As always, Arrow have given this movie the ultimate release, with a brand new 2K restoration and – as always – there are shedloads of interviews, extras, and a director’s commentary – making this an essential purchase for Cheerleader and Jack Hill fans.
The Green Inferno: when she joins a deforestation activism group, a naïve student comes face to face with the cannibal savages she’s trying to protect. I’ll put it straight out there; I’m not a big fan of Eli Roth… that being said, I had a blast with this film. The naive protagonist / final girl is surrounded by thin and/or unlikable characters (angsty alternative goths, far out hippy protesters, etc) so you’re not all that fussed about their fates, and watching them get dispatched is rather entertaining. There’s some outrageous practical effects, showcasing bloody and disgusting gore, but it’s all tongue cut out in cheek – think ultra black horror / borderline stoner comedy – with several laugh out loud moments. There’s a fun Final Destination style plane crash, followed by an intense tribe meeting (the scariest part of the film) – and after that it’s all killer. The only two downsides are that the film takes around halve the running time to get going; it also feels less urgent / more detached than the ‘found footage’ ‘real life’ cannibal exploitation films of the 70s & 80s. It would have been foolish to try to pull off a ‘Mountain of the Cannibal Holocaust Ferox God’ movie in 2015, as it just wouldn’t have the same impact, so Roth has taken the ‘cannibal movie’ template and given it a nice postmodern spin. The Green Inferno got an unfair rep by people mostly focusing solely on the gore; but tonally, it feels more like an out-and-out send up of student, or ‘leftie’ activism to me. Over time I hope it’ll become a cult hit along the likes of Cannibal the Musical and Delicatessen. Disgustingly enjoyable.
B-Movie Score: 9/10
Criminal Activities [mild spoilers]: when they get a bad investment tip a group of friends try to settle their debt to a mob boss by kidnapping a rival gangster’s family member. I was pleasantly surprised at how entertaining this crime caper was – the henchmen side-story (which stars the director) is particularly rib-ticking. The script and performances are surprisingly funny, but there are so many “Fucks” in here it feels like the film is going for a Guinness record – which is a bit of a shame, as it distracts from the good jokes. There are also some very well handled and well placed moments of serious tension and drama that really sink the hooks in to the viewer. The big issue is that it completely hangs on a very large and very wild twist that you could never have guessed on your own (and requires about 10 mins of runtime to fully explain). I hate lazy comparisons, but this one’s quite unique: think Lock Stock and Kiss Kiss Bang Bang – and you just don’t get many good films in this sub-genre. How much you ultimately enjoy Criminal Activities will depend on your tolerance for a big old slap in the face at the end – although there’s plenty fun to be had on the way.
Yakuza Apocalypse: a virus that turns everyone into a yakuza mobster is sweeping through a sleepy Japanese town; along with some vampires, goths, and a ninja frogman. There are two fairly major signs that you’ll either love or hate this film: firstly, the ‘Manga’ logo guarantees some mental Japanese stuff; secondly, Takashi Miike directing is another indicator of mental Japanese stuff. Suffice to say that there’s so much silly, random, and mental Japanese stuff (like a bird goblin man, kung fu frogman in a frog suit – mostly for no obvious reason) that it becomes a chore to keep up with. You get the feeling that Miike was going for a ‘Happiness of the Katakuris’ vibe, but got bogged down in the randomness and forgot about the plot. It opens with an ultra-violent bloodbath, but stalls immediately after and never really hits the top gear again: even the anti-fight at the end is a disappointing reductive idiom gag (massive build up / deliberately rubbish fight). A disappointing non-film from one of the most hit-or-miss directors on the planet. One for the Manga / Japanese / Miike fanboys only.
Blackhat: when a Chinese powerplant is hacked (and blown up) using parts of his old code a l33t h4x0r (‘elite hacker’ to you and I) is released from prison to help the FBI hunt down the threat. Q: how do you sex up a computer attack at the hardware level? A: lots of flashy and swooshy CGI of bits, bytes, circuits, electricity, keyboards, transistors – obviously. Unfortunately, none of the actors really shine, because none of the characters feel developed beyond their required contribution to the story line. Even parts of the plot don’t really work, like the weird romance angle, which feels like it’s just in there to broaden the film’s appeal: strangers becoming sacrificial lovers in a couple of days, just because the film required it. Pushing that stuff aside, you still get a solid Michael Mann film with two big shootouts (a decent one at an airport, and a fucking great one in a shipyard) and a very realistic crime scenario: from the IT Security stuff and hackers evading surveillance, through to the inter-departmental squabbling and larger China-US relations – it all feels authentic. You can see how this film could flop – it’s about hacking / security / information, non of which are popular movie subjects – but I fail to understand the hate/backlash for Mann: he’s one of the few directors that could shoot a dumpster and make it look fantastic; he is pure cinema – abusing colours, locations, and an always-moving camera. Blackhat uses a somewhat wooden story to ask bigger questions about technology and global security – and with all of the slick visuals you’d expect from a world-class director.
Whiplash: an ambitious and cocksure jazz drummer comes head to head with an abusive conductor that will do anything to push his students beyond their limits. It’s an interesting film in that the focus is on two very unlikable and unsympathetic characters; and a couple of Jazz songs dominate the soundtrack – both of these elements have the potential to isolate viewers. A film set around jazz band performances and rehearsals could have used more visual flare and flashy camera tricks, but the way it’s all cut together helps squeeze every last bit of tension and drama out of the big moments. All the actors live in the shadow of J.K. Simmons’ band leader, who is portrayed as venomous, dangerous, and borderline sociopathic individual… although it’s frequently hinted that – despite his extreme methods – he is genuinely trying to push his musicians into greatness. An examination of ‘how far is too far’, Whiplash is a unique teacher/student drama that’s adequately made, but elevated by huge performances, a booming audio track, and the fist-pumping finale.
And here comes mister gay pride of the Upper West Side himself. Unfortunately, this is not a Bette Midler concert, we will not be serving Cosmopolitans and Baked Alaska, so just play faster than you give fucking hand jobs, will you please?