Shield of Straw (Wara No Tate): the ever-prolific Takashi Miike’s latest movie – a tycoon offers a 1bn Yen open ransom to anybody that kills the fugitive who murdered his grand-daughter. This simple setup leads to a nice, tight film: with a couple of decent action scenes and loads of tense moments. It also has a lot of moral ground to cover, as it follows the security detail assigned to keep the prisoner safe, and whether or not they should turn a blind eye, or do him in themselves. The acting’s generally good, although there’s some fairly shoddy over-acting and screaming by Fujiwara (the main kid in Battle Royale). Towards the end, it does get a little formulaic – we’re safe / we’re not safe / repeat – but the pace and questions raised by the film are enough to distract you from the fact. What you end up with is a pretty mainstream Miike film that’s quite the enjoyable popcorn thriller/drama.
The Last Stand: as an escaped cartel leader speeds towards freedom at the USA-Mexico border, his last obstacle is a badass sheriff, and his unlikely crew of deputies. It’s nothing short of jaw-dropping when you see Arnie‘s total lack of acting skill and inability to construct sentences in English, especially given his on and off-screen careers! Still, his presence and entertainment factor are still there in abundance, and far outweigh his shortcomings. The supporting cast all did a decent job, and I love how massive foreign film stars always get drafted in as default action bad-guys. For me, this was missing a lot of director’s signature style and flair, other than the odd jaunty angle, although he really shines throughout the finalé and brilliantly handled action scenes – escape sequence, shoot out – as well as general stunt driving / automotive action. There’s also, a load of funny moments, and one-liners, that are far superior to Arnie’s groan-inducing cheesy quips. A cynic would point out that The Last Stand is a formulaic ‘outumbered & out-gunned’ story, with as many rookie cop / small-town cop / FBI / Cartel tropes that you could squeeze in… but when a world-class director meets an action legend, its explosive entertainment.
Sweet Karma: when a mute christian girl loses her sister to a generic Eastern European prostitution ring in Toronto there’s only one thing for her to do… find and kill ’em all! So this one’s a Human Trafficking film, but with proper (s)exploitation and revenge elements – a weird, but quite original combo. The low-res, grainy, cheap-looking film don’t help the watchability much, and there’s a couple of grim ‘Baise Moi’ type scenes in there, which are anything but pleasant. The story’s solid enough, and the finale is surprisingly good and tense. I was going to have a slight dig at the acting, but considering the lead is a Playboy Playmate (WTF), and everyone else is unknowns, I’ll give ’em a pass today. When a film’s trailer boasts the line “One of the hottest strip scenes on film”, it tells you all you need to know! Sweet Karma ticks all of the boxes of an old-school revenge film, but with Human Trafficking in there, it pales in comparison to the benchmark that is Lilja-4-Ever.
Battle Recon: The Call to Duty (AKA Battle Force): the first ever Special Service Force unit is sent into Nazi occupied Sicily to bring back a captured hero. A film that opens with the line “They were trained to scale cliffs, jump out of airplanes and kill Nazis” should grab any guys attention. It’s the classic story of a unit of dysfunctional army reject-rabble coming together and kicking ass; and being a b-movie there’s plenty of entertainment: camo paint that strays into ‘Black Up’ territory, one guy doing his finest Brad Pitt (Bawnjorno!) impression, ze kampvest Nazi general in history and a couple of random hot chicks thrown in for good measure. The action’s good for a movie of this scale too – especially the stray bullet effects – although it does dwell on the shoot-outs a bit too long. It’s well-directed, very well shot, the colour gives it a very expensive-looking finish (I initially thought it was a Blu Ray), solidly edited and overall well put together – a fine effort. Mixing the classic ‘behind enemy lines’ WWII story with a knowingly post Inglorious nazi killin’ tongue-in-cheek angle, Battle Recon has enough entertainment and heart to keep you watching for the duration, even if it isn’t the most original war movie you’ll ever see.
Black Christmas: [Mild spoiler] a sorority house plagued by abusive phone calls starts losing housemates at a rapid rate, but who is the killer!? Widely considered to be the first ‘slasher’ film, it contains everything we now take for granted in the genre – deranged serial killer with an aversion to young folk (always played by significantly older folk), meticulous stalking, savage attacks, all held together with of blood, terror and tension. This is one of the more technically superior horrors I can remember seeing; the first-person camera stalking is extremely impressive – especially given the size of old equipment – it’s cleverly shot, creepy sounding, well mixed, and remains convincingly festive. This still looks great for a 35 year old low-budget horror – if you can ignore 70s fashion. The high-quality means that a proper atmosphere is built-up, and it becomes genuinely creepy in parts. It’s also ahead of the curve with gratuitously foul language, which stands out more than the gore you see. On the down side, there are some major pacing issues with several sections of boring non-story, non action filler. Most disappointingly, there’s no reveal of the killer, motives or even a face – definitely missed a trick, leaving a bitter, unsatisfying taste. Black Christmas is a good B-movie, better than most of the stuff that’s churned out en masse these days – even after decades of imitation. It’s unfortunate that what would have been so fresh and shocking back in the day is now more interesting for everything behind and off camera – and how it was once innovative, unique, interesting, and bold enough to kickstart a genre.
Scream 4 / Scre4m: 15 years after the Woodsboro Massacre, ghostface returns for another whodunnit. The biggest failing of this fourth outing is the copious number of drawn-out, boring, unrealistic, painfully ‘meta’ dialogue-based scenes – executed by a bunch of smug ‘teens’ with a
hardcore superficial knowledge of the horror genre. The level of self-awareness in Scream 4 is so high that it’s genuinely hard to gauge and continually courts with ‘spoof‘? Despite being promised a ‘New decade, new rules’, what we actually get is a fifteen year old concept with some glaring modern references that stick out big time: social media / hand held footage / torture porn… To further challenge your pain threshold the knife-fodder cast are the epitome of boring, the ending isn’t too hard to figure out from the middle of the film, there’s still no nudity (the most common thread in all horror films!) – also, where’s everyone’s parents when this is all hitting the fan? There are a few standout moments, but they’re few and far between: the speech about victim culture and modern ‘celebrity/fame’ is memorable – and the opening 10 minutes with the Stab franchise was a smart way to start the movie. Unfortunately, this relies too much on the tricks of the original film (namely self-awareness), which seems a tad cheesy after so many ‘Scary Movie’ movies. Unnecessary money-making remake.
NEDS: follows a catholic kid in Glasgow circa in the 1970s at the teenage crossroads between continuing education or joining gang life. With a no-holds barred approach to the story and filmmaking, this is gritty, raw and violent for the entire duration; the mentality of the characters is particularly shocking – but as a Scot, I can (sadly) vouch for the realism. The language is coarse and very broad Scottish, so will be pretty difficult for anyone outwith the country to fully understand it. The central character is also one of the meanest pieces of work I can remember, with a likability score of zero, even as the school SWAT. Put this all together and you’ve got a moderately depressing story that in parts makes Trainspotting look like a sitcom – but there’s a few saving graces. There’s a lot of great performances, especially from a cast made primarily of non-actors; most notably the father and both the young & teenage Johns (esp Conor McCarron). Secondly, although it gets to some pretty dark places, the story arc is fantastic, proving to be very powerful and surprisingly effective as a whole. I’m glad I saw NEDS, at first I wasn’t impressed but as the story continued I was slowly drawn in and engaged through to the last 5 minutes. Even though it’s pretty dismal, this film won me over in the end.