El topo: a surreal wild-west-type cowboy tale that’s heavy on the religious symbolism and appeared to have been conceived (& filmed) whilst on all of the drugs. The biggest thing this film has going for it is reel after reel of top-shelf insanity and phenomenal imagery: attempting to put some of the scenes into words wouldn’t do them justice – but suffice to say that the locations, landscapes, characters, and overall visuals are absolutely remarkable. Beyond the aesthetics, the rest of the film feels like a hodgepodge of themes, styles, and ideas. The tone continually bounces around from jarring “Texas Chainsaw” style, straight into to a Russ Meyers type shoe-sniffer: from po-faced religious moments through to Blazing Saddles levels of stupidity. It’s also – unfortunately – a film of two halves, that gets tangled up after the initial “mission” and really loses the head of steam (and patience) that the first have had built up. The foley work is particularly terrible – the film is shot outdoors, but most of the speech and effects appear to have been recorded in a boxy echo chamber. There’s also a lot of violent (although reddest blood ever) and exploitative stuff in here too, like the misuse of religion, lesbians, and midgets & disabled people for no real reason. Bizarre and easily one of the strangest & most overlooked cult movies ever made, El Topo is the most peculiar of beasts, that’s only worth watching for it’s sublime and visionary aesthetic.
LOGAN [Spoilers]: as Professor X’s health deteriorates Logan has to keep him – and the first new mutant in years – safe from all the bad guys. This is unlike any other big superhero film you’ve seen: grisly, balls-out, 15-rated (borderline 18!). There’s lots of “Fucks”, gratuitous boobs, and exploitation-level gore; with claws hacking up limbs & digging in to skulls etc. It’s also a film where the titular hero spends the majority of the runtime hobbling, coughing, and lumbering around like a broken man. Hugh Jackman and Patrick Stewart give an absolute masterclass in character and acting, supplemented by a star-making performance from Dafne Keen. I wouldn’t want to be the actor that has to follow Jackman when the inevitable X-men reboot goes ahead – after 17 years in the role, he is Logan. The action scenes are sparse, but next-level-superb throughout – the highlight being the first time were introduced to Laura (a 10 minute fight-chase). As for flaws, there are only a few minor ones: Stephen Merchant’s horrific accent brings you right out of the film; and it spends a bit too much time introducing and building some minor characters. One of the main criticisms leveled against this is that it’s too “depressing” or “downbeat”, which I assume came from the same people who would prefer to see robots leveling cities. Logan is a character-driven road-trip western film (that happens to contain superheros) rammed with pathos and peril – what’s not to love?! It’s brutal, dark, raw, emotional, and – for me – this is the new standard for ALL future Marvel / Superhero / Comic Book movies.
The Villainess(aka Ak-Nyeo, 악녀, 惡女). an elite assassin goes on a rampage to win back her freedom. This opens with one of the most intense and enjoyable rip-roaring action sequences in recent memory, where no fewer than 50 henchmen are dispatched in a 6-minute point-of-view frenzy of shooting / stabbing / and kick-punching – think of the Oldboy‘s infamous corridor scene, but from Hardcore Henry’s perspective! The film also ends with an equally-impressive action finale involving a bus and a lot of great stuntwork / choreography. It’s peppered throughout with shorter bursts of ultra-violent, and undeniably ‘cool’ blood-spurting over-the-top moments. As you’ve probably guessed, the action scenes are second-to-none… however, they only total around a quarter of the 120 minute runtime; which is a shame as the film if being sold as purely an action film in the same vein as The Raid (the UK poster namechecks Kill Bill, Nikita, John Wick, Hardcore Henry, and Hong Kong Era John Woo!!!). The problem with these comparisons are that – as an overall film – The VIllainess nowhere near as strong as those classics. It’s also lacking in originality in that you can see where shots / scenes / characters have been lifted wholesale from the aforementioned movies; for example, the lead’s backstory is identical to Oren Ishii’s of Kill Bill. The story jumps around the timeline in a manner that is unnecessarily confusing until the final act, where it all kinda (?) fits together. Despite being built from bits and pieces of other action flicks, the action scenes in The Villainess are still inventive, great fun to watch and the spectacle (+ “how did they do that!?” factor) of these alone should entice genre aficionados. It makes it all the more frustrating that these scenes are lost in a flabby, overlong, underwhelming, and melodramatic plot – which could have done with losing around 30 minutes to make it a tighter and more focused / straight-forward action film.
Witchtrap (AKA – The Presence / The Haunted): before leasing out his family home, a warlock’s son calls in some parapsychologists to rid the house of evil spirits. For a low-budget late 80s B-movie the video and audio transfer are better than some of the bigger studio pictures from this period. The audio track – which was botched on the movie set – is particularly clear as every line and effect had to be re-recorded in post. The film itself is of a fantastically cheesy vintage; it went from inception to ready-to-shoot in under a week, so the plot is mechanical, (seven people enter a house – fewer leave) and the dialogue is massively overripe, but in a fun, corny way… and it’s not helped by the ‘detached’ ADR performances. Characters are all fairly stock, and are championed by a John McLean-style wisecracking hardboiled detective, who is – in all honesty – way too cool for this type of movie, but his constant jabbering helps the film remain on your good side. For the first few deaths it feels like the movie is wimping out of showing maximum gore, but the final act throws in a lot of blood and over-the-top kills, including an unusually long and graphic shooting and a monster melting sequence. It’s also surprisingly well directed; with slow and ominous camerawork (paired with an equally doom-laden soundtrack), plenty jumpscares, and some technical/dolly shots that you don’t usually get in this type of film. The new Blu Ray release is the first uncut/unrated version; it also boasts a heap of extras including an honest & interesting interview with the director. Nothing about Witchtrap is exceptional or original, but it’s better made, more entertaining, and as nostalgic as any other film in this genre. (Linnea Quigley also gets her waps out!)
B-movie Score: 7/10
Mechanic Resurrection: a retired hitman gets pulled back into action when his new girlfriend is captured and he’s forced to whack three seemingly unconnected criminals. Being the sequel to a somewhat derivative remake expectations going in aren’t exactly high; but the film just about meets them. Everything that isn’t an action/fighting scene is there to set up the next action/fighting scene; including a nonsensical plot and some ultra-dubious character motivation: within 10 mins a pragmatic contract killer has fallen and is risking it all for a random babe?!? It’s also ‘subconsciously Bond,’ with multiple exotic locations, submarine pen shootout, Rio cable cars, exploding boats etc. Not content leaning on one franchise, the story’s also centered around three “Impossible missions”: a prison kill, swimming pool kill, and boat-chaos… all fun, but none are particularly tense as Arthur Bishop never loses the upper hand. We get a rent-a-baddie (Hazeldine) with no charisma, personality, or memorable traits; and a rent-a-babe (Alba) with a suspiciously small wardrobe and whose cleavage is deeper than her character. On the upside, Jason Statham is back in his bone-breaking action lane; Tommy Lee Jones is chewing it up (but is literally in two scenes) and the film has an aesthetically pleasing, vibrant, Lucy-esque visual style (although some of the CGI is very ropy). Mechanic Resurrection is an uninspired action film with only one reason to watch it; Statham returning to his action roots… if you like mile-high body counts, entertaining dispatches, and Jason Statham punching & shooting his way through obstacles look no further than this.
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.
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.