Monday, 27 October 2008

Renegade Justice (2007)

It's hard to make out, but this is Seagal kicking a guy in the nuts eleven times

I was looking for this film at the video rental store for a while, but I couldn't find it on the shelves. I figured that even Seagal wasn't above the law of diminishing returns, and it was no longer profitable to ship his films all the way to Australia. However, it turns out I was only looking under the wrong title. Seems that somewhere between the US and Australia the name was changed from Urban Justice to Renegade Justice, presumably because the word "urban" doesn't have the same ethnic connotation here.

Seagal plays Simon Ballister, a man with a mysterious past (duh) who seeks revenge after his son Max is murdered in an apparent gang shooting. You could say he's Out for Justice, but that would be a terrible film-title pun so please don't. Plus it's not even accurate. Seagal admits himself that his quest is all about vengeance. He just wants to kill the guy who pulled the trigger, he doesn't care who ordered the hit. So he rents a fleabag apartment in the scummiest area of LA and proceeds to bust all manner of heads as he tracks down his son's killer. That's pretty much it. No double-crosses, no CIA shenanigans, just a straight-forward revenge plot. Refreshingly simple compared to some of Seagal's recent convoluted offerings.

Seagal's mysterious past is never made clear, although at one point he claims to be not quite a cop and at another point not quite a soldier. Maybe he's a mechanic, since the damage sustained to his vehicle in a car chase is completely repaired by the next day. Continuity nitpicks aside, this film might come off a little racist if it was just about Seagal rolling into town and beating up every black guy and Mexican that comes within arms reach. Fortunately he does some other things to balance the equation such as saving a kid from a gang of skinheads. Also, the bad guy turns out to be a (white) crooked cop. I guess I should put a spoiler warning, but if you can't solve that brainbuster within a few seconds of seeing the guy then you haven't seen too many Seagal films. Good for you.

Eddie Griffin plays Armand Tucker, the head gangster. He's a pretty funny stereotype, sitting around with a bunch of women in his expensive apartment, quoting Scarface. What is it with these gangster types and Scarface? Did the point of the movie go over their heads? Is there a special Gangster Cut where Tony Montana survives the massacre and lives a long and happy life on a pile of money, cocaine and bitches? Anyway, for all his money he seems pretty cheap, because it a lot of his gangsters seem to share the same Lincoln town car. Maybe he got a bunch of them on a fleet discount, who knows. Although they put his face on the box, Danny Trejo is in the film for all of five minutes as a rival gang leader. Good job on that cover art, by the way, they'll never tell you MS-Painted Seagal's bloated mug (complete with creepy widow's peak) onto someone else's body, unless they have functioning eyes.

One thing you could fault most of Seagal's recent films for is a lack of action, but this film delivers. There a large number of fist-fights in this film and they are fast and brutal, with stunt doubles kept to a minimum. There is a lot of camera and editing trickery, you'll never mistake it for Out for Justice Seagal, but it's good to see a film where Seagal does something other than walking and talking. The film also features several bloody gunfights, and I do mean that literally. Every time someone is shot, a double-stuffed squib shoots a geyser of blood ten feet in the air. Almost every bullet goes right through the body so they can have double the amount of blood spray. I approve of this level of tasteless and gratuitous violence, even though it rarely makes sense.

I am (technically) a man, so like all men I derive a sick thrill from watching someone getting kicked in the balls. You can imagine my delight when Seagal kicks a guy in the balls eleven times. Eleven times! Then he kicks him in the face and throws him down a staircase. I can imagine the sweet release of unconsciousness (possibly death) would have come as a relief after that punishment. Nothing will top the Marked for Death trifecta of being eye-gouged, back-broken and tossed down an elevator shaft, but eleven successive ball-kicks is pretty good. Seagal also breaks a bunch of random bones and even breaks the neck of some goon after he loses consciousness. That's pretty cold, I think I'd like to see Seagal breaking bones of unconscious opponents more often. He also says "motherfucker" a lot in this movie. I mean, a lot. On the plus side, it's him actually saying it, not some random guy dubbing him.

Renegade Justice is the third Don E. FauntLeRoy/Seagal film, the previous being 2006's Mercenary for Justice. I'm not sure if Seagal's character in that film was for Renegade Justice or just the regular type, or how this relates to the (as descriped by Lance Henriksen) "Extra-Curricular Justice" Seagal's character distributed in Pistol Whipped. Anyway this film is definitely the best Don E. FaultLeRoy/Seagal film out of the two I've seen and probably the best Direct-to-Video Seagal film in recent memory. Renegade Justice: Surprisingly competent. Good job!

Seagal Bloatwatch Threat Level: Elevated. He's not at his fattest here (I think Out of Reach was probably the high point) but he's big, which they try to conceal with his usual brown leather trench coats. Seagal's Windsor glasses (featured prominently in The Patriot) make a special guest appearance as well. They also surround him with morbidly obese gangsters so he looks thinner by comparison.

Friday, 17 October 2008

Sukiyaki Western Django (2007)

Historical accuracy is not this film's strong suit

Between Fistful of Dollars and (ahem) Last Man Standing, haven't we seen enough remakes of Yojimbo? Apparently not, because the unstoppable filmmaking juggernaut Takashi Miike has added his own entry into the mix. This is one of his more accessible films, and considering it's about Samurai cowboys that dress like members of a boy band, that really says something about him. Takashi is wearing his influences on his sleeve with this one, though: when the mysterious stranger rolls into town, one of the hoodlums is quick to warn him "Don't go playing yojimbo." Wouldn't it be awesome if the film Yojimbo kept being passed back and forth between the East and West, each adding their own cultural twist?

The film's tone is established at the opening scene, which takes place on a ludicrously fake looking sound stage. Piringo (Quentin Tarantino) retrieves an egg from the belly of a snake, waxes poetical about the battle of Dannoura and then out a bunch of bad guys with a six-gun and some cartoonish sound effects. It's silly, it's fun and (if the presence of Tarantino wasn't enough to tip you off) it shows that historical accuracy has taken a permanent vacation.

Look, I love Tarantino's films as much as the next guy (probably more than the next guy, judging from the commercial success of Grindhouse) but dude can't act. Luckily he's not on screen for very long plus he doesn't mangle a lot of Japanese because the film is entirely in English. Tarantino adopts a weird range of accents and vocal inflections, though. He almost sounds, like much of the cast, as if he learned his lines phonetically. Subtitles are recommended, although on the DVD I watched there were a few hilarious errors, such as where Tarantino learns of the death of his son and he softly replies "Ah-so." The subtitles render his somber proclamation as "Asshole."

Oh, you want to know about the plot? Well, the film takes place after the Genpei war, with the rival Genji and Heike clans moving into a small town in order to find some hidden gold.
The Genji clan dress in white and are led by coolly sinister Yoshitsune, while the red-garbed Heike clan are led by the aggressive Shakespeare-enthusiast Kiyomori. Props to the costume designer, Michiko Kitamura, who kits out each clan in a weird and wild fusion of East and West that fits the film perfectly. With both factions at a stalemate, a mysterious skilled gunman moves into town and helps to turn the tide in favour of the few remaining townspeople.

Okay, so it's a lot like Yojimbo, but to be fair though, the film borrows from a variety of sources other than Kurosawa and Leone. In addition to the title, Takashi borrows the title song and machine-gun-in-coffin subplot from Sergio Corbucci's awesome 1966 Western Django. He also throws in references to Shakespeare and the War of the Roses. Hey, why not? There's a few other memorable characters including a schizophrenic Sherriff, a retired gunfighter named Bloody Benten, even a mute child who is a half breed between the Heike and the Genji.

Sukiyaki Western Django is very much a Takashi Miike film, for better or worse. There's some stylish, occasionally cartoony violence, especially during the bloody final showdown. It kind of reminded me of his film Dead or Alive. Also, like many of Takashi's films, the film seems a little rushed and paced improperly, with a few slow parts here and there. Although it's enjoyable, it doesn't gel as much as I would like, coming across as an extended homage rather than standing on it's own.

Sukiyaki is a fitting dish to describe this film: A bunch of random ingredients, some Eastern, some Western, boiled up together, dipped into raw egg and consumed. The raw egg represents fun times at the movies or something, I don't know, I don't think I thought this analogy through. Bits of it work, bits of it don't, but in the end it goes down well.

On the Saw Series...

So, another Halloween another Saw movie. I've got a love/hate relationship with the series. On one hand they are excruciatingly dumb and unbelievable. On the other hand I appreciate the grand guignol simplicity of it. Victim wakes up in horrific torture device, victim is forced to commit some act of self-mutilation to escape (but usually dies). Unfortunately they also seem intent to tack on a winding story that starts out stupid and only gets more ridiculous as the series goes on.

When I saw the first one I thought it was okay. The gritty, David-Fincher-for-Dummies aesthetic was cool at first but got cornier and more annoying as the film goes on. It just tries to hard to be grimy and unsettling. It's like a Tool music video that runs for 90 minutes. It's also got that annoying music video editing where every time there is a change in scene there's a whip-cut and a metal-on-metal screech. Cameras zipping to and fro, smoke machines, squealing electric guitars. I don't know why filmmakers do this stuff because it's going to timestamp the film as effectively as synthesizers, drum machines and that noodly saxophone music that was in every cop film after Lethal Weapon came out.

But the thing that really hurt the film for me was the hammy acting. Usually I don't mind cornball acting in horror films, it's part of the charm, but when Wesley was sawing off his foot I started laughing out loud. I couldn't help it, the film just took itself so damn seriously. I thought the whole theater was going to erupt into laughter, but I was the only one. This annoyed me because I'm sure people thought I was one of those douchebags who laughs during every tense moment just to show how jaded and cynical they are.

Anyway, the film (and every subsequent sequel) ends with a patented Shyamalan twist that includes a gratuitous recap of every goddamn line of dialogue in the film, spelling it all out for you like you're a moron. What's more, the films flash forward and backward in time, several plot threads run concurrently, and all the while you've got to keep track of about fifteen different cops and FBI agents, who they are after and why. It's ridiculous. In some ways all this stuff it's kind of novel. It's not often that you find a horror film that has too much story. Somebody give me a flowchart or a time-line or something. I never thought a horror film could make me feel so stupid.

By the time I got around the fourth film I had no fuckin' clue what was going on. I didn't even know who was being tortured or why, let alone care about their situation. That kind of works against you in a horror film. What's more, they don't expend one drop of effort to make the victims believable or interesting characters. They are needlessly cryptic and act like obnoxious jerks even when their lives are on the line. I can't believe for a second that these people would continue to keep secrets about themselves, especially since they all know about the "Jigsaw killer" and that they are pretty much fucked if they don't find a way out.

One thing that I like about the films is just how ridiculously complicated Jigsaw's plans and contraptions are. I mean, in Saw 3 he had a machine that transported and dropped rotting pig carcasses into an industrial grinder (I counted five but who knows how many he had tucked away) and poured the resulting slurry over the unfortunate victim until he drowns. Seems like too much work. What's wrong with just dropping the guy into a big tank of liquefied pig guts? Plus if you think about the plot for more than five seconds (not recommended) you'll realise just how complicated Jigsaw's plan is and how much of it hinges on ridiculous coincidence.

Yeah, I'll probably still see Saw V, but I'll feel guilty about it.

Sunday, 5 October 2008

Guy N. Smith Book Review - Abomination

The Earnshaw family (Les, Diana and daughter Emma) are a group of organic farmers who live on a farm known as the Dingle in the village of Pen-Y-Cwm. Unfortunately, Pen-Y-Cwm is also home to Roeder Agrochemicals, a laboratory that develops and tests exotic pesticides. Although they claim that the fallout from testing is at safe levels, everything goes pear-shaped with their latest pesticide, which goes too far, crosses the line man was not meant to cross, etc. It operates on the same principle as systemic weed killers, causing the pests to outgrow their food supply and die off. Unfortunately it doesn't quite work according to plan, and the fallout from testing causes local insect-life (and some amphibians) to turn into monstrous freaks. It also gives them a craving for human flesh, for some reason. What will this mean to the residents of Pen-Y-Cwm and the Dingle?

While we are on the subject of dingles, I think the story reaches a peak for me when our furious hero bursts from his front door dressed only in tighty-whiteys and brandishing an axe, in order to confront a congregation of slightly-larger-than-average frogs. That's the level of ridiculousness I hope to get from my Smith books. Now, I don't know if Guy N. Smith has a severe case of ranidaphobia, but let's face it, frogs aren't exactly the most menacing creatures. I don't care how big they are. When Emma is terrified by a giant frog I can buy it, since she's a little girl, but one woman is suffocated to death by a group of giant toads when they stuff themselves into her mouth (which is, as far as I can tell, the only way they could possibly kill her). Even though she is handicapped by a couple of broken legs, it's a pretty pitiful (not to mention unbelievable) way to die.

Aside from the frogs, all other manner of creepy crawlies are inflated to larger-than-life proportions with appetites to match. Snake sized worms gross everyone out at a funeral, a couple of horny teens are dispatched by enormous leeches, a church congregation is menaced by kamikaze stag beetles and an old woman gets extra-large earwigs in her vagina. You know, the usual shenanigans. A couple of nasty school-board administrators are also introduced and dispatched over the course of a chapter and it's a pretty elaborate death too, with vivid descriptions of insects crawling in every available orifice and eating them alive from the inside out. In a classy touch that is pure Smith, one of the victims has an orgasm as the ants eat her alive (love life getting stale? Try flesh-eating insects!)

Yeah, I don't know if it's a side-effect of the chemicals or what, but the insects seem to have a bit of a genital fixation. If you're ever attacked by giant earwigs, cover your scrotum (or labia) because that'll be stop number one on the all-of-you-they-can-eat buffet. Every victim is penetrated (guess where?) and/or says some variation on "Holy crap, they've eaten my genitals". Actually that'd be a great name for this book or indeed many of Guy N. Smith's books. Feel free to use it if you're reading this, Mr. Smith.

Interspersed with the random insect munching is a few brief chapters about the evil Roeder and his two subordinates. They've been lying on their reports, and now the government has caught wind of their situation and is going to shut them down. One has a change of heart but he is eaten alive by insects as he is fantasizing about being a woman (long story), while the other gets in a scuffle with Roeder that ends pretty badly for all involved. The story is wrapped up with little to no human intervention and certainly no action from our (by default) heroes. Let's just say it involves exploding frogs.

This is a pretty terrible book, but it leapt so far over the line of ridiculous that it became enjoyable again. All the Smith trademarks are present and accounted for: paper-thin characters, utterly ridiculous deaths, heroes who are as such simply by virtue of surviving until the final page, and vivid descriptions of gore and sex, usually occurring simultaneously. This is probably one of Smith's most entertaining nature-run-amok books, but he's written about fifty million of them so I can't say for sure. The message is clear though: Screw with nature and it will fuck you up. Seriously. If you want to dip your toe into the ocean of Smith books, this is a pretty good place to start.