Sunday, May 26, 2013

Hellraiser (1987)

Before we begin I'd just like to bring up the fact that the film "Hellraiser" does not, in fact, involve raising hell. Well, I suppose you could argue that the actions done by the main characters would qualify as "raising hell" in the vernacular sense of the phrase, but it wouldn't be in the usual soccer-riot sense one would expect. It'd be in the murder sense of the phrase, which doesn't really work that well. In addition, the literal Hell is not actually raised either, though I have no idea what that would mean even if the movie contained it.

What I'm trying to say is that "Hellraiser" is a stupid title that makes no sense. There. I'm done with that. Now on to the actual film.

"Hellraiser" was the feature directorial debut of Clive Barker, who hasn't done nearly as much as you'd think in the 30 plus years he's been around show business, but is still a pretty well known name. Why he's only directed two other movies, I'm not sure, as he's certainly not untalented at it. And while I wouldn't necessarily call "Hellraiser" a great film, it's easy to imagine it being the debut of someone who went on to do great things. Kind of like David Fincher and "Alien 3." Although I do like "Alien 3" more than "Hellraiser," to be sure.

That's not a slam on "Hellraiser," by the way. I'm just a hopeless "Alien" fanboy.

"Hellraiser" is about a very nasty man, Frank (Sean Chapman), who opens a puzzle box he bought from an Asian merchant, which ends up releasing demons from Hell. These demons imprison him in their sadomasochistic dimension, after ripping him to pieces and all that good stuff you'd imagine to happen in Hell. How he found out about the box in the first place and why the crap he opened it is left a little vague, but whatever. The important thing is that evidently, part of him is still "alive" in the floorboards of the house it happened in. Again, that's not explained, but whatever.

A little while later his brother Larry (Andrew Robinson) and Larry's wife Julia (Claire Higgins) happen move into the house Frank died in. This isn't nearly as random as it sounds however, as it belonged to their parents, and Frank had been squatting. Larry has no idea what happened to Frank, though, as he hasn't talked to him for a long time. He just assumes Frank is in jail somewhere.

During the moving process, Larry manages to slice his hand open on a nail to comically horrific effect. Some of his blood manages to drop exactly on the spot where the remnants of Frank's body are laying under the floorboards, which sucks the blood up like a sponge, bringing Frank back to life. Kind of.

He's a work in progress.

When he is discovered up in the attic by Julia, Frank informs her that he needs more blood to become whole again and to escape the demons that had imprisoned him, as they are unaware of his resurrection, but probably won't be for long. Since she has feelings for him, as she'd already had an affair with him once, Julia agrees to help him. She lures poor saps to the house to be murdered so Frank can feast upon them. And it's at that point we notice that she's the only person in this film as despicable as Frank.

Things predictably spin out of control as more and more people get murdered up in the attic, while Larry is dumb enough to never notice that his wife is an evil psychopath. Although in his defense, she always seemed a little cracked, so after she becomes a murderer, little had changed in her outward appearance or mannorisms. But in any case, it's clear that eventually, Larry is probably going to end up on the wrong side of a hammer.

Here is Claire Higgins auditioning for Stanley Kubrick.

Eventually becoming our main character after the film is about halfway over is Kirsty (Ashley Laurence), Larry's daughter from a previous marriage. She is the one to finally uncover everything that's going on, although by the time she does it's clearly too late to do much of anything about it, and all of a sudden she becomes the "last girl in a slasher movie" out of nowhere, running from the bad guys in an effort to escape from a situation she didn't even know she was in.

It should be obvious at this point that "Hellraiser" is a bit unique in that way. While the narrative clearly focuses on Julia for a good majority, the last act suddenly switches to the viewpoint of Kirsty while Julia is rather quickly thrown on the back-burner as she becomes not important at all. It works in the context of the story, but it is strange for a person who seemed like a minor character for most of the film to suddenly be front and center.

But Ashley Laurence is HOT. So please. Front and center away.

I like the idea that the main protagonist for the majority of the movie is someone who is a villain. Julia is despicable, and Claire Higgins plays her with fantastic cold evilness, but we're forced to follow in her footsteps, almost like a ride we're strapped into which takes us through a tunnel of horrors. We don't want it to keep going deeper into the darkness, the same way we don't want Julia and Frank to kill all these poor saps, but "Hellraiser" is making us watch in protest the same way the ride keeps shooting us down that tunnel. And then we finally get some goodness in the character of Kirsty, but even she has to dive into that evil headfirst in order to get out. It really makes for an unnerving experience.

Most will know and remember "Hellraiser" for Pinhead and his Cenobites, however. And true, they are the most striking images from the film, but they don't factor in as much as you'd probably think, appearing at the very beginning but then going away until about the last 15 minutes. Pinhead doesn't really do too much for me though, at least as far as iconic movie villains goes. He's intimidating, and he and his Cenobites are indeed disturbing to look at, but I don't know. He just looks bored most of the time. I know Doug Bradley is a beloved horror icon for his portrayal, and the man has to hold some kind of record for playing a character that many times (the count right now being 9 movies), but some more intensity would have been appreciated.

One thing I will give "Hellraiser" credit for is having some good effects for a tiny budget. The gore in this is pretty well done and hard to look at on occasion, which is the whole point. Even if the close-up shots of hooks going into skin look more like one of those fake body parts on the obstacle course on "Double Dare," it's still hooks going into skin. It's just disturbing. The best effects are on Frank as he slowly becomes more and more human, and his initial raising from the dead is as fantastic as it is disgusting.

I may not be as big of a fan of "Hellraiser" as other horror affectionados are, but I can certainly appreciate it. I think the biggest issue with it that it has 8 sequels. And I can't see this series going anywhere but downhill.

Well, if Stephen King says it's good, you know it's quality.

THE BOTTOM LINE - "Hellraiser" is an interesting, somewhat quirky movie that is a bit dated in its effects, but still manages to be eerie, atmospheric, and reasonably intense. It's also notable for having some of the better acting of 80's horror films. Worth a look if you're curious.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Hellgate (2011)

My forays into what was once one of my favorite film distributors, IFC Midnight, have hit some snags recently. It's not enough to make me retract my support or not be a fan anymore, but as of late they've had more misses than hits. "Kill List" was the only good one from them I've seen recently. The rest sucked. Again, I'm not about to stop taking interest whenever I see their label on a movie, but at this point my expectations have started to bottom out.

This brings me to "Hellgate." I should have probably expected mediocrity from this one under normal circumstances, but it had the audacity to flash the words "Cary Elwes" and "Hellgate" at me - a combination of words that just sounds awesome. Who doesn't want to see Cary Elwes entering a gate of the Hell variety? That just screams entertainment value. Plus he's a great actor who doesn't get nearly enough work, so anytime he pops up I'm down for an hour and a half sit. And Oscar winner William Hurt is in it too, which is also sweet. Sounds like fun.

Fun is not a word I'd use to describe "Hellgate," however. There's another word that fits it much better, and while that word doesn't start with an F, there is an adjective that does which can be added in front of it. The word is "Boring." If you slap that mystery adjective on the front of that word, it gives us the phrase F_______ Boring. What that word starting with F is will be left for you to deduce.

"Is it Fezzik?"

"Hellgate" is such a nothing of a film. It's an hour and a half long movie which moves at such a glacier pace that I would have sworn it was closer to the length of the 4 hour extended cut of "Return of The King" had I not been checking my watch constantly to see how much longer I had to sit there.

The idea is that Cary Elwes is Jeff, a guy who visits Thailand with his wife and son when a car crash in the opening scene blissfully cuts short the disturbingly horrendous acting by anyone in the car who isn't Cary Elwes. When he awakens from his brief coma to find his wife and son died in the wreck, Jeff starts his rehabilitation only to find that he's seeing a bunch of creepy things that won't leave him alone. So he freaks out a bit, he wonders what's happening to him, and his nurse tells him to relax. That cycle goes on for quite a bit.

Eventually they get to the bottom of what's going on, which is that the spirits of his family can't rest until some arbitrary thing is done within some arbitrary length of time or bad things happen or something. So enter William Hurt, who is supposed to be this Ghostbuster/Zen Master/Surfer/Exorcist type guy who is Jeff's only hope. With his help, Jeff enters the Hellgate and faces the forces of darkness to put the souls of his family to rest.

 William Hurt just found a hangnail. It's far more interesting than anything happening to Cary Elwes.

This all sounds intriguing, and perhaps in another movie with decent atmosphere, effective scares, and most importantly decent performances it could have had potential. But as it is "Hellgate" is simply too plodding, spending far too much of its run-time rehashing the same tired idea over and over again, too brightly lit and sterile looking to be atmospheric, too repetitive and lazy to be scary, and too disinterested in itself by having actors who look like they just don't care at all about what they're doing.

Cary Elwes isn't anywhere near his best here, but William Hurt was the worst offender in that category. He is capable of great acting, but here he just stands around looking bored, kind of sleepy and irritated to be there. Every word out of his mouth gives the impression that he's 2 seconds away from telling the director that there will be no more takes, that the last one he did was good enough, and to shove it if he doesn't like it. Clearly this was a paycheck for everyone involved, as nobody is really trying anyway, but Hurt is noticeably bad in "Hellgate." It's clear he does not give a single damn here. He just wanted a paycheck and a trip to Thailand.

"HEY! I said get the hell away from me with that camera! No, I don't care if we're still rolling. It's 5. I'm done. I'll be at the bar. If you try to come and get me, I will stab you in the balls."

And as spooky as the idea of creatures from Hell is, the second biggest fault of the movie after the acting comes from the pathetic attempt at being scary by showing us the same quick flashes of those said creatures over and over and over again until it's such a nonsensical mess of really bad makeup and lousy fake teeth that it eventually looses all meaning in context to anything. It's really amazing when a movie overplays its hand so much to so little effect that demons popping up to rip out your soul serves more to help you take note of how not to apply a prosthesis, rather than causing you any fright.

Oh no. A demon from Hell. This is SO different from the last 27 times I've seen this exact shot that the experience is completely new for me now. I'm so afraid I think I may have soiled myself.

And the pisser is that the demons popping up wasn't even well handled the first time we saw it. Let alone at the point were I'd seen it dozens of times. The pathetic attempts at horror here would be laughed off of the sets of Halloween themed kids films. The Large Marge scene in "Pee Wee's Big Adventure" was scarier than this.

Maybe that's not fair. I don't think "Hellgate" is necessarily meant to be a horror film, though it was certainly marketed as one. The original title was "Shadows," which honestly fits much better, but the title and the marketing not being misleading would only make "Hellgate" better by technicality. It would still be boring even if it was honest with us.

 Don't be fooled. It's nowhere near as interesting as the trailer. Nor as coherent.

THE BOTTOM LINE - "Hellgate" was absurdly close to making the prestigious list of "I hit the STOP button" films. In retrospect, I shouldn't have bothered muscling through to the end. It's a plodding, boring, poorly acted, confusing drama which tries to keep your attention by making lazy attempts at horror which is just about as scary as "Ernest Scared Stupid." Only that movie had better special effects.

Sunday, May 19, 2013

It's In The Blood (2012)

There's a brand of films out there which I've labeled as "Southern Weird." I don't know if I'm the only person who has ever labeled it as such, but that's what I call it. Those are movies that usually take place in the deep American South, and they will have this surrealist tone and look to them, which will typically be enhanced by non-traditional storytelling and editing. What you end up with is usually a experience where you're not exactly sure what in the world just happened, but you know for a fact it was sweaty, very yellow-tinted, and probably more than a little drunk.

Movies like "Killer Joe," "In The Electric Mist" or "Bad Lieutenant" are good examples of what I'm talking about. It's often a tripy experience, and as such can also lend itself well to the horror genre. As long as you don't mind not exactly understanding everything. Personally I'm about 30% when it comes to whether or not I'll like it. It's not really my thing, although on occasion it can be awesome.

"It's In The Blood" is most certainly worthy of the label of "Southern Weird," as it takes place in the South and is most definitely weird. And while the presence of Lance Henriksen is enough to make me take notice in any case, I was hopeful that the film would be either scary enough or weird enough to be unique and memorable.

Unfortunately "It's In The Blood" wasn't scary, although it was weird enough. The weirdness is twofold here, as the actors make some questionable choices in their acting methods, and the story is obtuse and borderline indecipherable. Now, the real question is: Is it solid enough to make those things not matter? The answer is: "No."

"It's In The Blood" follows the unfortunately named October (Sean Elliot) as he goes on a hike in the woods with his father Russell (Lance Henriksen), who is a sheriff in a small hick town. October hasn't seen his father in a long time due to some horrifying things that happened, which are explained as the film progresses. Eventually we find out that October and his girlfriend (who is also his adopted sister) Iris were tortured by one of Russell's deputies, which ended with Russell getting shot in the stomach and the guy blowing Iris' head off before shooting himself. This is, naturally, after the deputy  rapes her.

So yeah, good times all around, really.

Understandably October has issues with going back there, for which I can't blame him. Personally if that happened to me in a town where psychos like that make deputy I'd nuke the site from orbit. (It's the only way to be sure.) But he goes back, mostly because he does kind of feel bad for his dad since he's all alone now, but deep down there's a part of him that hates Russell and wants to tell him so to his face.

And there is where the main thrust of the film is, so to speak. "It's In The Blood" goes into some metaphorical, surrealist territory which finds October literally fighting his demons which manifest into real creatures, severely hurt Russell, and trap them in the woods. From that point on it's really about October and Russell begrudgingly working together and trying to patch things up while they attempt to survive the whole mess, which given Russell's condition doesn't seem likely. And then more weird stuff happens, October faces his demons both figuratively and literally and the movie ends without really explaining a thing.

Wow. The film literally ends with the main character walking through a door in the middle of field of sunflowers. If an artsy cliche is so cheesy that it would normally be used to make fun of artsy cliches, and a film still uses it, is it still artsy or just cheesy?

I "get it," you know. It's a metaphor for forgiveness and holding on to rage and blame and whatnot, but honestly I just didn't find it that interesting. While the acting is good on occasion, particularly from Henriksen, it doesn't help much because it's still a movie that is trying way too hard to be cerebral when it's not that complex. And the mixing of the real and trippy was, to me, detrimental to the film as a whole. I just prefer one or the other, otherwise it's distracting when we fall down the rabbit hole into Wonderland after stepping off of Big Daddy's porch.

Speaking of distracting, don't equate teaching your son how to drive a manual transmission to having an orgasm. It's...unsettling. Particularly when it's coming from Lance Henriksen. I like him as an actor. Please don't put the image of him sexually aroused in my head. I don't need that, movie. Keep in mind that this is already a film featuring brother/adopted sister action. Let's not add "father getting off on his son's stick shifting abilities" to the list of "ew" present. Freaking South.

Mmmm that's good shifting.

I will give the film credit for a rather well done scene of leg amputation. It's not that it's particularly good in terms of effects, although I can imagine it being done much worse, but the lead up to it and the acting is solid, and it was enough to make me wince and not want to look. Although through Lance's screams and moans I caught him simply saying "Ow" once, which while pretty funny kind of ruined the moment.

But again, Henriksen is quite good here, and it's probably one of the better roles he's had in some time. There's a lot of character for him to chew on, and it's fun watching him get into the depths of the sadness and loneliness of Russell. One little monologue in particular that struck me as surprisingly good when compared to the film overall concerns Russell talking about how pathetic and empty his life is. It's so bad that every night he gets drunk and watches static on the TV until he passes out. It's actually a sadly moving speech, and Lance kills it. But then again, I'm not sure if one good speech from Lance Henriksen, as awesome as he is, is enough to make the whole experience worthwhile.

And no, I have no idea what "It's In The Blood" is referencing, since the mental trauma suffered by October is most certainly not genetic, and October is about as different from his father as you could reasonably be. Even the stretched sexual connotations ones could torturously make between him and Iris doesn't work because they're not blood relatives. Even the psycho wasn't related. What's in the damn blood?! Am I stupid for missing something?

Or is it just an ominous sounding but ultimately pointless title? You pick.

THE BOTTOM LINE - "It's In The Blood" honestly comes across more like an episode of "The X-Files." One of the lousy ones you only watched once because David Duchovney or Gillian Anderson were off filming something else, so it became a go nowhere filler episode that wasn't necessarily bad, but you just couldn't bring yourself to care about it. Sure it's weird and all, but it's weird without feeling like you've seen anything worth seeing by the end.

Friday, May 17, 2013

Star Trek Into Darkness (2013)

The 2009 "Star Trek" was one of the best films I saw that year. While some geeks bemoaned the alternate timeline Get Out of Jail Free Card, I thought it was a brilliant maneuver which freed it from the albatross of continuity that hangs from the neck of every film in the series before it. And under the efficient yet overly lens-flare zealous direction of newly appointed "Nerd Savior" J.J. Abrams and the amazing acting from the spooky-good cast, the 2009 "Star Trek" was to be quite honest, the best of the series since "The Wrath of Khan."

Naturally expectations were sky high for the followup. Personally I had "Star Trek Into Darkness" pegged as my second most anticipated film of the year, bested only by "The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug." The mystery surrounding the plot and the enigmatic villain only served to amp up the anticipation, as Abrams as per usual wouldn't tell us anything outside of vague hints in the trailers. Like I'm guessing was the case with a lot of people, I was losing my mind over it. I needed to see this damn movie.

It must be a sadly amusing thing to watch a nerd freak out over a movie. I wouldn't know. I'd be on the inside looking out. I'd probably sympathize.

It's such a special feeling to have all those hopes and expectations you had been carrying for so long be thoroughly met and even, on occasion, exceeded. I was expecting "Star Trek Into Darkness" to be good on the mere fact that the last one was. I had no idea that is was going to be like this.

This movie blew my damn mind.

Still not sure if I like the "football jersey" uniforms, though.

Once again, as with the 2009 film, "Star Trek Into Darkness" is a sleek, surprisingly humorous and tightly wound action flick that pays homage to the source material while putting its own very distinct stamp on it. There's no way you'd mistake either of these films for the Shatner or even Stewart series besides the fact that they all feature a starship with NCC-1701 stenciled on the hood. The J.J. Abrams series is more like those films if they were one of the bonus levels from "Sonic The Hedgehog 2" cranked up on 5-Hour Energy Drinks and blasting Van Halen. But at the same time the reboot has a clear love and deep respect for the source material, and constantly goes out of its way to pay homage to it and reference it whenever it can. And the best part is you don't even have to be a Trekkie to "get it."

With "Star Trek Into Darkness" however, this was like a whole new beast. This isn't a journey of exploration nor a character study nor a turn-off-your-brain explosion fest. This is a dark, violent, dangerous roller coaster ride which sends you plummeting from orbit. And it's sending you flying at such high speeds and severe turns that the G-force is enough to liquefy your skull as it sends you hurdling through the Earth's core. While you're on fire. And blasting Van Halen.

From the opening scene where Spock enters an erupting volcano, "Star Trek Into Darkness" hits the ground running and never stops. Ever. The closest it comes to down time is right after that when Kirk gets predictably reamed out by Admiral Pike for being a loose cannon who doesn't play by the rules, and Kirk reams out Spock because he can't physically not play by the rules, even when people's lives are in danger. Even in the quiet parts people are yelling. And then a building kind of explodes and that's the end of that. From then on it's non-stop intensity. Full power to the warp core, indeed.

Ah yes. The rare "Inward-Facing Double Coconut Crush" maneuver. Brian Adams would be impressed. #oldschoolwrestingjoke #sorry

The story this time involves a mysterious man named John Harrison, who is doing a very good job of blowing up a whole bunch of Starfleet stuff and killing a lot of people. A LOT of people. (The collateral damage numbers in this film are staggering) Once the situation goes beyond personal for Kirk, he sets out to find Harrison and take him out. But as we could tell by the trailer, there is far more to Harrison than meets the eye, and finding himself quickly outclassed and outgunned, Kirk finds himself in a situation where the fate of his crew and everyone he cares about is in dire straights. And the mystery of who this man is serves as one of the most thrilling reveals I've seen in a film in a long time.

I'm going to once again give every single last bit of praise that I can possibly heap onto the cast. As far as the main cast goes, they get all of it. All of my praise. There is not any among them that doesn't capture the spirit of the original actor, almost like it was the younger version of themselves on screen.

Chris Pine has the swagger and bravado and even some of the same mannerisms and facial ticks that William Shatner brought James T. Kirk to life with, but at the same time he does his own thing with it. This is particularly true with his vocal pacing and inflections, which are thankfully nowhere near the Shatnerian method of acting. But every once in a while he slips a halting, oddly intonated line in there in clear tribute. But Pine brings something that Shatner (as much as I am a fan of his) wasn't really able to do, which was to give Kirk a real sense of vulnerability. Here, Kirk is a man who has been successful mostly due to his freakishly good luck and good instincts. But that has made him reckless and overly confident - something which is about to cost him and his crew dearly.

"Oh. Hi."

This movie finds Kirk at the nadir of his lowest despair and the height of his greatest heroics, and Pine sells it with every word out of his mouth and expression on his face. I got more emotional resonance from Chris Pine in this than I ever did from Shatner, which isn't a slam on Shatner because this is a different kind of movie than he was in, but it made Kirk seem like more of a human being rather than the larger-than-life, nearly mythical figure that he was back in the original series or films. That's not to say he wasn't fully fleshed out as a character back then, but he was just as much a "real person" as Bruce Campbell is when he stars in something. You don't watch it for the subtle nuances of his acting, you watch it because it's Bruce Campbell and he's freaking awesome.

Zachary Quinto threatens to steal to show as Spock, once again capturing Nemoy's signature performance to an eerie degree. And if Kirk shows a huge range of emotions and states of mind in this film, it's Spock's journey here that is arguably even more significant, as we get deeper insight as to the nature of his Vulcan way of thinking, and how he functions as a man who has chosen to ignore fear or pain. But when it comes time for that resolve to be severely tested Quinto, like Pine, is more of a firebrand than Shatner or Nemoy portrayed, and because of that tends to convey emotion more effectively when he does fly off the handle after being annoyingly composed for so long.

Pretty much everyone else is a superstar. Karl Urban IS DeForest Kelley. There's no way around it. His version of Bones is the most accurate of all the cast, and he freaks me out. He's also given some of the best dialogue in the film, including the funniest lines and most foreboding. I was very happy to see Simon Pegg's Scotty get a more significant role in this movie than the previous one, as he is another one of my favorite actors, and likewise does a spot-on James Doohan. Zoe Saldana's Uhura is a bit too aggressively in-your-face than I'd like, as it's not much like Nichelle Nichols, but it's a fine version of that character. Meanwhile Anton Yelchin and John Cho as Chekov and Sulu are fantastic but a bit underused for my liking. But then again, "Star Trek Into Darkness" is, like all the rest, a movie about Kirk and Spock. We can't blame priorities on screen time, and everyone does get their moments to shine, short as some of theirs might unfortunately be.

What the crap is Uhura looking at?

The only person I didn't like was Alice Eve. She's a terrible actress. Just wretched. I've hated her in everything I've seen her in, and here was no different. I was pissed when I found out she was in this, and I was proven right to be mad. She's wooden, she speaks like she's reading cue cards, and can't seem to figure out if her character is a calm, cool, collected hard-ass or ready for a nap. I guess the way to portray "strong female characters" is to act bored and speak in a deadpan monotone. Even in a scene where she's pleading for her life and the lives of everyone on the Enterprise she delivers her lines about as forceful and intense as someone ordering from a Taco Bell drive-thru.

Ugh. Just go away.

But what of Benedict Cumberbatch? What of the villain? That would involve spoilers. Horrendous, unforgivable, ruinous spoilers, and I'm not going to do that to anyone, and I would advise that anyone who hasn't seen it yet to not even look up this film on IMDB or its equivalent before seeing it, because spoilers are already hard-coded into the page. Just go into it blind, as it was meant to be seen. But suffice it to say that Cumberbatch is incredible. Unbelievable. Someone needs to cast him as every villain ever after this film, because he's seriously like the next Alan Rickman, or perhaps a better analogy would be Jeremy Irons crossed with Christopher Lee and a dash of Ralph Fiennes. And you need to see him in this.

If he's not the next Bond villain, I quit life. Seriously. I'm checking out.

The only issue I take with this movie is roughly the last 3 minutes. Everything before that is golden, but at the very end it pulls the rip chord on a fight scene which is so intense and heart-pounding that I don't think I blinked for 15 minutes. Then PUNCH - cut to black - two weeks later - then one year later - some words are said - credits. Done. It's almost like the movie heard his parents coming up the stairs while he was in his room smoking so he had to stamp the cigarette out quick, sit on it, spray half a can of FeBreze and throw the ashtray out the window like "WHOOPS NOPE NOTHING TO SEE HERE. WE'RE DONE. MOVE ALONG."

Additionally I must nitpick that the traditional "Space...the final frontier" speech isn't very well handled. It's kind of crammed in there nonsensically, and the way they do it implies that it's actually the oath that Starfleet captains take when they assume command. This would also imply that every ship in Starfleet is called "Enterprise" and is on a 5-year mission to boldly split infinitives. There's also a problem with Kirk not getting any closure on dealing with the fact that he loses a LOT of people on this trip out. It's never even brought up, which wouldn't be such a huge deal except that at the beginning of the movie Kirk makes it a big point that he's never lost a single crew member. Well, that's changes, and it should have been a very emotional scene and a bit of character development which ties into the themes of hard choices and loss throughout the whole film, but since the movie just decides to slam on the breaks we never get that.

But whatever. That's the last 3 minutes. That's 2% of the run time of this movie. And while those things are annoying, everything else is - simply put - one of the best action movies I've seen since...well...2009's "Star Trek." And you need to see it. NOW.

Oh god this trailer. I have all the excitement.

THE BOTTOM LINE - I have not been this pumped up and pleased by any other film this year. It's the best action movie of 2013 so far, hands down, and it's just as good (if not in some ways better) than the 2009 film. It's in the top 3 best "Star Trek" films, and I honestly really want to see it again. Like, I wish I was watching it again instead of typing this. Guaranteed in the Top 10 of 2013, probably near the top. Unreal.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Mama (2013)

Often when I watch a PG-13 horror film, my expectations are kept at rock-bottom. It's not that it would be especially difficult for a film to be scary without being R rated, but it's usually something that just doesn't end up happening. Then again, R rated horror films can suck too, in fact most big horror films aren't very good no matter the rating, so I guess it's best to just expect a horror film to suck. That way when a good one comes along you'll be really pleased. Then if you're anything like me, your hopes will be raised and you'll go on a horror movie kick, only to be reminded once more that most of them suck. It's a viscous cycle.

The Guillermo del Toro produced "Mama" falls somewhere in the middle for me. It didn't suck by any means, but neither was it that great. I suppose for a PG-13 horror film it's a cut above what we're used to, but that doesn't excuse some questionable choices when it came to character designs which nearly ruin the entire experience, and an ending which seemed to come straight out of another film. And the film that the ending came out of was not very good.

Despite these issues the film begins strong with a very well done first 10 minutes which is horrifying, heartbreaking and atmospheric as hell. A man comes home after killing his wife and boss, and takes his two young daughters for a ride to nowhere in particular as he speeds along an icy highway. They fly off the road and crash, making their way to a cabin in the woods. As the man is about to shoot his daughters in despair, he is killed by a ghostly figure, who the girls call Mama.

After a long 5 year search, the man's brother, Lucas (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) finally finds the girls in the cabin. They are feral and can barely speak anymore, having seemingly survived by themselves in the woods the whole time. Of course, we know that they were raised by the ghost, but they don't know that. Lucas arranges for them to live in a house with himself and his girlfriend Annabel (Jessica Chastain), a Joan Jett type who isn't a big fan of the whole "children" thing. Neither the less, she and the girls eventually start having a connection, which is a problem because Mama is still following them around. And she gets jealous.

Dude, don't go in the closet. You so know you do not want anything to do with anything that's in that closet. Just...stop.

There is some decent intrigue afoot as the mystery of who exactly Mama is and what she wants is decently engaging. And the suspense, enhanced by some fantastic lighting, camerawork, and (on occasion) subdued soundtrack is enough to warrant some halfway effective scares. That being said, there are a few too many jump scares which would have been more effective had they not relied on the orchestra sting, and the final mystery as to Mama's past and what she wants ends up being pretty old-hat. And to make it worse, what she wants ends up being not important at all, which tends to undermine the rest of the film leading up to the ending.

Ah, the ending. Before the ending 10 minutes came along, I was reasonably on board with "Mama." It wasn't great but I was interested. Then the ending hit and it became a Tim Burton movie. In fact, I'm pretty sure they got the same cliff from the end of "Dark Shadows." And while it did kind of make sense from a story perspective, the rest of the film had been relatively down-to-earth, at least as much as a ghost story can be, with a more claustrophobic setting of being trapped in a house with something that wants to kill you. Taking it to a showdown at the edge of a towing precipice seemed a little out of place.


The ending isn't really what hurt "Mama" the most, however. What hurt this film more than anything else was the design of Mama herself. The movie makes a pretty severe error with not only showing way too much of her, but also making her look like a Muppet. I'm not even joking, she looks like a cartoon character with her elongated face, her close-set eyes, and weird twitchy mouth. And the terrible CG used to make her only enhances how ridiculous she looks, which is anything but scary.

Seriously, she looks like a ghost from "Luigi's Mansion."

I guess they were going for a surreal look to her, which is meant to be creepy, but whenever she appears all it does is destroy any tension the film had generated. At least, after you're done jumping from the obnoxious orchestra sting they inserted to artificially trick your body into thinking it's frightened. And after a moment late in the film when one of the characters gets killed and turned into a creature that resembles Mama, which was hilarious since she looked like Sam the Eagle if he were killed in "The Grudge," it's all downhill after that. There's no being scared of a monster that does that to people.

I will admit that I found Jessica Chastain to be alright in this, and she grew on me as the film went along despite being obnoxious at first glance. I'm still not a huge fan of hers though. I guess it's the same problem I have with Jennifer Lawrence. I just don't get the appeal. I am however a big fan of Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, and while he doesn't get as much to do here as I would have liked, seeing him is always awesome. The opening scene where he has lost his mind to the point of killing his kids (Nikolaj plays both brothers) is simply gut-wrenching, and the best part of the whole movie.

This whole problem could be solved nearly instantly if someone tossed the man a longsword.

Ironically it's the two little girls who steal the show from the two heavyweights. Megan Charpentier as the older sister Victoria had moments of outright brilliance as far as child acting goes, and the younger sister, Lily, played by Isabelle Nélisse deserves insane amounts of credit for being able to portray a fleshed out character with a vocabulary of about 5 words. Both of these girls are simply fantastic, and I'm interested to see where their careers take them. Between them and Morgana Davies from "The Hunter" it looks like there's a lot of talented young actresses to look forward to. Hopefully they won't pull a Carrie Henn and just disappear from acting after a promising start.

And yes, the only reason I bring her up is because Pvt. Spunkmeyer plays the psychologist in "Mama." And that's awesome.

For me the indie circuit is still one-upping the major releases as far as scary movies go. It's not that the major releases are bad, they're just formulaic. While that doesn't make them bad films necessarily, often times they're just kind of boring because of that. "Mama" suffers from that trap of being pretty easy to call, although I've seen it done much worse. Whether or not you think it's worth your time is up to you.

If only the actual movie was as subtle and slow building as the trailer was.

THE BOTTOM LINE - "Mama" is worth a rental if you don't expect too much from it. It's not very scary, at least not for me, but I could see it scaring the bejesus out of someone. At least it's got Jamie Lannister in it. And there are far worse horror films as of late. Far. Far. Worse.

Monday, May 13, 2013

The Hunter (2011)

I remember hearing about "The Hunter" back in 2011. I knew nothing about it at all, except for the fact that it starred Willem Dafoe and Sam Neill. And really, do you need more than that? I know I don't. Sam Neill has been a favorite of mine ever since "Jurassic Park," but once I saw him claw his eyes out of his skull in "Event Horizon" I was a die-hard fan. And Willem Dafoe is just a legend. I would watch a 90 minute film of him eating waffles. I have no idea what in the world you could do what that, but with Dafoe it'd be intense as hell.

So of course "The Hunter" never showed up in any theater that I was aware of, and it kind of just disappeared from my thoughts until recently when I saw it on the wall of my local Blockbuster. Score. That means my choice that night was easy.

After finally getting around to seeing this film, however, I find myself at a bit of a loss. Granted I went into this film without any preconceived notions besides the fact that two actors I really like are in it, but at the same time this wasn't at all what I was expecting. I went in expecting perhaps a thriller, maybe with Dafoe and Neill tracking and hunting each other, which would have been pretty awesome. Instead "The Hunter" is more one man's introspective journey as he rediscovers a bit of his humanity while working to destroy something that is pure, primal and rare - almost a reflection of himself.

So there's not going to be any knife fights between these two, then?

Well, okay I guess. It's not what I was expecting but that doesn't make it bad. And looking at it from an overall impression, I'd say "The Hunter" is an interesting, well crafted film, if a bit light on some crucial character development which ends up hurting the narrative somewhat. But it's still engaging and absolutely well acted, in addition to being very pretty to look at.

Martin (Willem Dafoe) is a mercenary who is hired by a bio-tech company to go to Tasmania and track down and gather the genetic material of the Tasmanian tiger, an animal long thought extinct. However, rumors abound of a lone tiger, and Martin doesn't much care about the creature besides getting a paycheck out of killing it. He poses as a researcher from a university and stays at the house of woman named Lucy (Frances O'Connor) and her children, Sass (Morgana Davies) and Bike (Finn Woodlock).

Sam Neill is Jack, a local man who guides Martin up into the wilderness before leaving him to do his own thing, since Martin doesn't like company, especially when what he's doing would not only get him arrested, but probably lynched by the local environmentalists who are in the midst of protesting all kinds of things. He also looks after Lucy and her family a bit, since her husband went out hunting months ago and never returned.

Martin runs into difficulties pretty quickly including the tiger being a very elusive quarry, no electricity for his equipment back at the house, local jerks smearing his car with poo, and Lucy being hopped up on pills to the point where she can't take care of the kids. It's during the second act that the hunting takes a bit of a back seat and we instead delve deeper into Martin's relationship with Lucy and her family. While initially Martin is respectful but cold and distant, the kids instantly take a liking to him, and eventually the walls start to come down a bit and he starts to grow attached.

"Sass, why does it say "Surrogate Father" over my bedroom door?"

From that point on the main drama of "The Hunter" becomes whether or not Martin is still willing or able to go through with killing the tiger after finding a reason to care. And after some ominous connections are discovered between himself and the missing father, the tiger itself has become less of a creature and more of a symbol for the things in his life that are missing. How can a man be expected to kill that?

As one would expect from an adaptation of a novel into a film, which this is, there is a bunch of symbolism throughout "The Hunter" if you wanted to put your film school pants on and pour yourself a glass of moscato and get all snooty. But that also ends up being the film's biggest handicap - which is that Martin's character is never really fleshed out enough to drive home those pivotal moments of development.

The problem is that Martin doesn't do a whole lot of talking, which makes perfect sense. He's out in the woods by himself for a lot of the film, so he doesn't have anyone to talk to. And Dafoe plays the part incredibly well, but there's not a good gauge on where he is as a character at any particular moment. I'm sure there's plenty of interior monologue in the book which is revealing, but here it's more like a guessing game as to his state of mind.

He's thinking of all those bright flowering young men at Khe Sanh, Langdok, and Hill 364. It's going to be a travesty.

This is never more apparent than at the end of the film, when he's forced to make the ultimate choice that the whole story has been leading up to. And when the choice is made it was more confusing as opposed to cathartic as to why he did what he did. Although it makes (some) sense when you think about it, it's still not incredibly satisfying, particularly after the film had dropped a HUGE bomb a little ways into the third act which nearly made the whole affair seem pointless. It's seriously a soul crushing moment, and is a slap in the face for many reasons.

Distracting from all the missing bits of character is the absolutely stunning landscape of Tasmania. There are few places more interesting to look at than Australia, Tasmania, and New Zealand, and "The Hunter" looks on occasion like we've stepped onto some sets from "Lord of The Rings," only it's dark and brooding with far less excitement. But it's beautiful, none the less. And director Daniel Nettheim sure knows where to point the camera.

"Oolroyt then, Meesta Maht'n. This 'ere's the ployce. Beest speetin' cliff in Tasmoynia."

Lastly I'll call out the cast once again for some as usual excellent acting from Dafoe and Neill, although Neill is playing a far more relaxed character than I'm used to seeing him as. It was neat hearing him get to talk with his normal accent, though. Frances O'Connor was heartbreaking and loveable in addition to being really, really hot, and young Morgana Davies was one of the best kid actors I've seen in a while. I'll be on the lookout for her in the future, as I think she's got a solid career ahead of her.

So I didn't get any knife fights between Dafoe and Neill, but I still got something that was fairly competent and reasonably entertaining, if mostly because of the cast. I guess that's a fair use of my time. Is it overly harsh of me to really have wanted that knife fight, though?

The movie is nowhere near as intense as the trailer makes it out to be.

THE BOTTOM LINE - "The Hunter" is a deliberately paced drama that takes its time to build up tension and suspense, to varying degrees of success. It feels a bit abbreviated in terms of character development, and smacks of typical "The book was better" syndrome. A genuinely horrifying shock in the last act rescues it from being too plodding, at the cost of leaving the audience with something like a hollow feeling by the time the credits roll. But is it bad? No, despite that it's still worth a look.

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Pain & Gain (2013)

So Michael Bay made a movie for $26 million, huh? That is brilliant. Absolute genius, and it needs to happen more often to more directors. Give James Cameron all his usual equipment, the best stuntmen Hollywood can find and Arnold Schwarzenegger on the condition that he can't use CGI at any point. Give him a year time limit, too, since he won't have to wait for the stuntmen to catch up with his vision. Give Spielberg 100 grand, an RV, Tom Hanks and an HD camera and send him on his way. Let's see what he does. Make Uwe Boll film a movie on a cell phone. Hell, it'd probably be a step up from his usual stuff.

It's no secret that I'm not a Michael Bay fan. I guess when I was a kid I was, but that's only because Bay's target audience is the lowest common denominator and stupid children. I think that even at that time I knew what I was watching wasn't very good, but man, when you're 15 years old "Armageddon" just speaks to you. I saw that mess in theaters twice, son. That blew my young mind. And of course "The Rock," which is arguably Bay's best film (although the only reason it's good is the cast) was a monument to my adolescence. Then he did "Transformers" and all affection for Bay was lost on me, with little chance of ever returning.

I think this was the moment when my childhood officially died.

I won't say that "Pain & Gain" has brought me back into the Michael Bay fold, so to speak, but you know something? This is good. This is a really, really, really good movie. And it's not only a testament to the actors involved, almost all of whom give award-worthy performances, not only a testament to the writers, Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, for making a true, horrible story about true, horrible people actually hilarious, but it's also a testament to Michael Bay himself, because with "Pain & Gain" he has outed himself as a very good director when he wants to be. And yes, it pains me to say it, but it's true.

"Pain & Gain" is the "so insane it can only be true" story about a trio of lunkheaded body builders who wanted more out of life. After all, they deserve to live the American Dream. So they kidnapped a rich guy and stole all his stuff. This all led to some torture and cold-blooded murder, and saw two of them ending up on death row. They actually got away with it for a while, but that's mostly because the story was so bonkers that the Miami police didn't buy a word of it. Or they were incompetent. But it was probably a little bit of both.

Danny Lugo (Mark Wahlberg) is the ring leader of the group. He's unsatisfied with his job working as a trainer at a gym when, after attending a motivation seminar by a guy named Johnny Wu (Ken Jeong), he decides he's going to be a "doer" and not a "don'ter." That's when he develops his scheme to kidnap one of his clients, a rich guy named Victor Kershaw (Tony Shalhoub), and take all his stuff. He enlists the help of his friends Adrian (Anthony Mackie) and Paul (Dwayne Johnson), and after a few bungled attempts they nab Victor and hide him in a sex-toy factory for a month before they finally end up with all his money, after which they try to kill him. Of course, since they're idiots they can't even get that right, so Victor is left alive and seething for vengeance.

Even with $26 million, Bay still gets the "Walk away from an explosion all cool" moment.

His only problem is that the police don't believe him for various reasons and, despite dubious circumstances, all the paperwork he was forced to sign while imprisoned which handed his possessions over to Danny is technically legit. Victor hires a private investigator, Ed DuBois (Ed Harris) to get to the bottom of everything, who is the guy who eventually catches up to Danny and the others. Of course Ed is helped by the fact that Danny and the others are, once again, really stupid.

The cast is across the board fantastic. It's takes a lot of talent to make characters this unlikeable be this entertaining, and in some bizarre ways the portrayal makes them almost lovable. Naturally these are terrible people, but you can't help but love Mark Wahlberg and his bright-eyed sincerity. Almost every word out of his mouth is either a terrible idea or something dumb enough to split the Earth in half, but he says it with such innocence and such gravity that you believe that to his 'roided up core he believes every syllable of it.

Even as he's being led away to prison, he's telling the person who caught him that he should work on his quads. I love this guy.

The only person who threatens to steal Wahlberg's thunder is Dwayne Johnson. Now, everyone else was great. They were fantastic. But just in case anyone out there was not yet aware that Dwayne Johnson was a shockingly talented actor, here you go. At first he's the innocent, even dumber, born again Christian simpleton of the group, but as the movie goes on and he indulges in the decadent lifestyle he finds himself immersed in, the drugs and money and pressure and guilt start making him crack. And it doesn't take too long before he's doing more really stupid things, which cause the spiral to go down even further. Meanwhile you can see the cold panic that is setting in right under the surface of his tough guy exterior, but you get the feeling he's too stupid to understand any of it. It really is a stunning performance.

The cameraman attempted the world's most epic high five with Dwayne Johnson. These are his last recorded moments.

One thing that has always remained constant with Bay is his style. As much as I despise the vast majority of his films it can't be denied that he's got a visual thumbprint that is impossible to miss. You know from the first few frames of the film whether or not it's a Michael Bay film. And "Pain & Gain" is no different. The shaky cam, the frankly pointless bits of slow motion, the nearly fluorescent color scheme, lots of lens flares, and the upward angle low-shots and dutch angels that have come to be his trademark are all here. It looks just like "Transformers" but without robots and Shia LaBeouf's stupid face.

And while visually it does border on obnoxious, had this been a first time director I wouldn't have minded. I would have just thought it was a guy with a strong and unique visual calling card, like David Fincher or Stephen Spielberg. I think I only find it obnoxious because it reminds me of other films I despise, which is distracting. I'm sitting there laughing my fool head off at Wahlberg, but in the back of my mind I'm dreading that any moment Skids and Mudflap will show up with fried chicken, watermelon and Kool-Aide.

That brings me to my biggest complaint about "Pain & Gain" - some of the humor. This is not only a Michael Bay movie in visual style, but also on occasion crap that's not really funny. This is a tableau of all the usual testosterone infused sexism, homophobia, bigotry and misogyny present in all his works, only it's cranked up to such levels that it makes me think that it's potentially satirical. I can't really tell. If that's the case it puts a whole new light on his other works, but suggesting that perhaps his brain-dead brand of machismo is a kind of parody is probably giving him too much credit.

That's his chainsawin' shower cap.

There's no way that it's a coincidence that so much of this film is hysterical, while also containing gags that are note-for-note the kind of sophomoric idiocy that we've seen time and time again with his films. The writers are talented, after all they are the duo that wrote "Captain America" and both "Thor" films. I find it hard to believe that they would have a fat man blasting poo all over a hospital bathroom after getting an enema, a priest coming on to Dwayne Johnson, Rob Corddry thinking that Walhberg telling him to "star 69" a guy means having sex with him, or a little person showing up to threaten Wahlberg and Johnson with a bat just because, well, little people are apparently hilarious. That crap is classic Michael Bay, and we've seen it time and time before with him.

I think it's those moments of non sequitur shenanigans that have nothing to do with anything that were put in there by Bay himself. They had to be. The rest of "Pain & Gain" is clearly parody. It's a bit mean spirited and by extension stupid because the characters are stupid, but one thing it isn't is nonsensical. Those random episodes of idiocy that reek of Michael Bay are too dumb to be satire. He's just getting in the way of the talented writers. It'd be like if Seth MacFarlane had been on the writing staff of "Blazing Saddles." All of a sudden Gene Wilder and Cleavon Little would step into a recreation of the music video for Toto's "Africa," because that makes sense, and we're all supposed to laugh because "the 80's."

But just as soon as that crap is over we usually cut to something awesome like Dwayne Johnson grilling human hands, so it all kind of evens out.
Even with those things in there, the rest of "Pain & Gain" is honestly kind of brilliant. And I think I've figured out why I liked these characters so much and had such a good time when in another Michael Bay movie I would have hated it. The reason is because unlike Shia LaBeouf or the rest of the cast in the "Transformers" series, we are never meant to like Wahlberg and Johnson. They are terrible people, but "Pain & Gain" doesn't insult us by trying to make us root for them. We don't necessarily want bad things to happen to them because they're so entertaining in their awfulness, but if they were to get caught we'd probably say "Well, they had it coming, the idiots." The horrible things they do are easier to laugh at when we're not expected to be on their side like they're the good guys.
Does "Pain & Gain" make me a Michael Bay fan? Hell no. Are you high? I still think his movies are generally borderline hate-crimes against anyone with a brain-stem. But let it not be said that I'm not merciful, because I always give credit where credit is due. This is a good movie. And Michael Bay directed. True, it might be good in spite of him, but it's still good. Now if he can just get away from CGI robots and do more stuff like this, maybe I won't consider scheduling eye removal surgery whenever another one of his films comes out.

Check out the trailer for "Pain & Gain." It's a pretty good representation of what the movie is like. (Red band trailer so NSFW)

THE BOTTOM LINE - "Pain & Gain" is a bit niche based on how utterly sleazy and mean spirited it is, but if you're someone who can appreciate some dark humor than this film is an absolute blast. I'm not completely sure, but this may be my favorite Michael Bay movie. Even if you hate him as a director, I'm seriously recommending this one. Crom help me, this might make my Top 10 of 2013. Trust me, I'm as surprised as you.

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Sushi Girl (2013)

I'm not going to lie, I went into this one with not a small amount of trepidation. While watching the ads in front of "John Dies At The End" I happened to see a trailer for "Sushi Girl," and I was taken in by its grindhouse, retro vibe. This looked like a hip movie that had a great sense of style. The sleazy, almost dank color palate, the looming sense of building dread, the slimy evil dripping off the tongues of the characters about to hurt this poor guy, and the fantastic churning rock at the end - this was a fantastic trailer, and I was very interested in seeing it.

But on the other hand, I hate torture films. They're just not my thing, Although I can handle violence in movies just fine, when it comes to torture that's kind of a deal breaker for me in many cases. It all depends on whether or not the focus is on the torture and violence or on the story. Movies like the first "Saw" are fine, because it's more about the story rather than how disgusting they could make the carnage. Then you've got "Hostel" and the "Saw" sequels which are the exact opposite, with no subtlety to be found. I don't dig on that. And based on the trailer for "Sushi Girl," I wasn't sure which kind of movie it was going to be, and I was kind of nervous.

But on the other hand again, Mark Hamill. I didn't even realize it was him in the trailer until they did a roll call of the actors at the end. I did a double take, and then watched the trailer again. My god, that was Mark Hamill, wasn't it? He's nearly unrecognizable, but there he is. You can even hear the Joker voice in there a little bit. And at that point I knew I was watching it. I don't care what the level of violence is, if it means seeing Mark Hamill in front of a camera again, I'm so there. I just had to hope that the movie was decent.

I'm not going to make a Luke Skywalker reference. That's too easy. I'm going to instead make a "Time Runner" reference. Um...who's that on the table, Rae Dawn Chong?
(Nailed it!)

I guess I should take more chances, because "Sushi Girl" ended up being good. Really good. Shockingly good, actually. In fact it's one of my favorite movies I've seen this year so far. "Sushi Girl" is one of those films that, after seeing it, I find myself scrounging the video store and for more movies like it. It's got me on a bit of an exploitation movie kick. I've got a fever, and the only prescription is more sleaze. Of course I'm unlikely to stumble across another movie this good, but you can't know until you try.

"Sushi Girl" follows a very unfortunate night in the life of Fish (Noah Hathaway), a man who has just been released from prison after doing 6 years for a robbery gone bad. However, the other men who were involved have pressing issues to discuss with Fish. Most pressing of all is the whereabouts of the diamonds that went missing during the heist. Fish always claimed to have no idea what happened to them, but I'll leave it up to you to decide how much they believe that story. So, the leader of the group, Duke (Tony Todd) sets up a little Welcome Back dinner for Fish, complete with all his old robbery buddies, a bunch of instruments that could be used for torture, one very simple question, and one naked girl laying on the table covered in sushi.

A "Sushi Girl," if you will.

It doesn't take long for Fish to understand what's about to go down, and it only takes slightly longer for the guys to start going to work on him. Leading the torture are Max (Andy Mackenzie) and Crow (Mark Hamill), two guys that hate each others guts, but are willing to work together, at least for a little bit, to get their cut of the diamonds. They're unsurprisingly the most psycho of the bunch, as they're making $5,000 bets with each other to see who will be the first one to torture Fish into talking, which means they're upping the ante with each round as Fish refuses to crack.

All of the cast was fantastic, and all of them got their moments to shine. Noah Hathaway has this great fatalistic, defeated presence that suggests that maybe on some level, Fish thinks he deserves what he's getting. Or at least, he's so broken and beaten down that he just doesn't care anymore. Tony Todd is as always creepy as hell, and James Duval as Francis, the reluctant member of the crew who isn't down on the torture, gives an ironically tortured performance as the one guy with something close to a soul. You can imagine how well that works out for him.

But the guys stealing the show were of course Mackenzie and Hamill. The two of them are like fire and ice - with Mackenzie being barely contained napalm ready to rip out Fish's eyeballs straight away if it means getting the loot, and Hamill taking his time with it, savoring it, and having fun as he stares laser beams over the rims of his dorky glasses into Fish's soul like he's ready to pluck the wings off of it to watch it squirm after he gouges it out of his body with a pair of pliers. Mark Hamill is absolutely phenomenal in "Sushi Girl." And by himself, he makes this worth watching.

Don't take my word for it, though. Check out this little clip. (It cuts off before "ouch" happens)

And despite the fact that she spends 95% of the movie laying naked on table doing nothing and doesn't have any dialogue until the last 10 minutes, the beautiful Cortney Palm as the eponymous Sushi Girl certainly makes you take notice of her. And when she gets something to do, it's clear that this still obscure actress is someone to be on the lookout for, because she could have quite the career in genre films if she lucks out and keeps getting roles in movies like this.

One final word on the cast that I had to geek the hell out over was a flashback scene featuring not only Jeff Fahey, and not only Danny Trejo, but also one of my all-time favorites, Michael Biehn. They don't get to do much, true, but it was still amazing to see them just show right the hell up like it was a "Grindhouse" mini-reunion. And Danny Trejo has a machete (of course he does). It's pretty legit.

But what of the torture? That's what I was worried about, after all. It's true that "Sushi Girl" gets pretty intense. But fortunately it didn't get as hardcore as I had feared it would get. This is by no means a movie for the squeamish or for those with weak constitutions, though, as any film featuring a man getting mercilessly smacked in the face over and over again with a sock full of broken glass would probably require the viewer to have something of a strong stomach. But at the same time, these are relatively brief bursts of violence which have a big amount of buildup, but once initiated don't last overly long or get overly graphic in their depiction. At the end of the day, this is "a movie with torture in it" as opposed to "a movie about torture." There's a big difference.

Comparisons to Quentin Tarantino films are inevitable, specifically "Reservoir Dogs." After all, it's about a bunch of criminals of varying degrees of psycho, a diamond heist is the central conflict, most of the movie is in a single location with the exception of flashbacks, there's a dude tied to a chair getting tortured, a lot of gun pointing starts happening at the end, all while having a very distinct sheen of drive-in movie grit. Even the ending revelations have "Kill Bill" vibes. This is obviously made by someone who is a big Tarantino fan. The insane part is that there are those out there who would call that a bad thing.

Please. It's nothing like "Reservoir Dogs." Fish didn't get his ear cut off.

It's true that some might lazily condemn "Sushi Girl" as a "Reservoir Dogs" knockoff, but that's really not giving it the credit it deserves. There are really big differences in structure, pacing, cinematography, visual style, and acting between the two films. That's not even bringing up the most distinct Tarantino trademark - the dialogue, which "Sushi Girl" wisely doesn't even try to emulate. Apart from the fact that they both feel retro and might make a decent double feature with each other, the only thing connecting them are the superfluous plot similarities. To me they feel like two extraordinarily different films. Even if "Sushi Girl" does feature kung-fu legend Sonny Chiba as a sushi chef, just like in "Kill Bill." I'm willing to call that an awesome coincidence.

I love movies like "Sushi Girl." Those little movies nobody has ever heard of that come right the hell out of nowhere and take you by surprise. These movies remind us that good movies are still being made by the bucket-full. We just need to look outside the movie theaters for them sometimes.

If you see this trailer and are intrigued in any way, seriously see this movie. It's just as stylish and awesome as it seems here (Red Band trailer so technically NSFW)

THE BOTTOM LINE - I loved this movie. It's got loads of style, great intrigue, tension, effective and hard-hitting violence, and fantastic, memorable performances all around. This is probably making my Top 10 list for 2013. It's a serious contender, at any rate.