Review: The Gift (2015)

Directed by: Joel Edgerton
Category: Thriller

I can't remember the last time a big budget studio thriller had so many people talking about it's big twist ending. So much so that the marketing department took a page out of the Sixth Sense hoopla and marketed The Gift around it's big surprise ending. And still as of this writing, while the film has been out a few weeks already and unfortunately hasn't done great box office business, the trailers still revolve the entire premise around this big surprise twist ending.

For me, it all started with a review I read from Birth. Movies. Death. before this hit theaters. Essentially, the film reviewer said that the trailers just don't do the film justice, and that "The Gift is not fucking around". From that moment, I was sold. But then they touched on it's huge "twist" ending, which got me even more intrigued. Since then pretty much every single review I read, and every trailer I saw soon after really pushed for the big ending. This past week I took advantage of my local theater's $5 Tuesday deal and gave this a shot, hoping for the best, hoping this film would kick my ass, like the strong word of mouth kept implying.

The Gift is undoubtedly one of the best made, and most solid thrillers I can remember seeing in a theater. It's good. Really good. And really solid. However, it didn't kick my ass, and it's big twist ending wasn't anything I was expecting it to be, thus sort of leaving me a bit unsatisfied. I'm sure I'm not alone on this. I don't really know what I was expecting, but with all the rave reviews, and all the talk about not ruining the ending for anyone who hasn't seen it yet, I was expecting something big. And ultimately, The Gift's ending didn't quite seem like a big twist at all, but more a satisfying conclusion to a rock solid thriller. To me, it felt like that's how these films should end, with a big conclusion, and in that respect, The Gift delivered ten fold. But did the ending blow me away? No, so you shouldn't expect it to either.

When Simon (Jason Bateman) and Robyn (Rebecca Hall) move to a new city, a seemingly random run-in with an old acquaintance by the name of Gordo (Joel Edgerton), slowly turns into a nightmare, and soon, Simon's past comes back to haunt him.

Actor/writer/director/producer Joel Edgerton has crafted a really sleek and tension filled thriller. I'm not sure how he was able to pull this off, considering there were no hints at his talents behind the camera in the past. Primarily an actor from Australia, he's made a short or two, but that's it. The Gift would mark his first big studio effort, and not only that, he decided to wear so many hats his first time out, and each one works splendidly well. Surprisingly, Edgerton shows a strong sense of character buildup, and offers up some really nice visual eye candy to boot. You get the sense that he took his time setting up shots, looking for the right angles, and getting the most out of every single frame. And then there are the little touches that most people probably wouldn't notice. For instance, there's a scene where the main character Simon (Jason Bateman) is showing his new office off to his wife during a work party. As the camera pans around the room my OCD immediately picked up on the crooked picture frame in the background, and it was driving me crazy. And I thought "how could anyone in the set design miss that?!". But then as Simon walks past it, he fixes it. So it was deliberate, and was a tool meant to show how structured  Simon is, which speaks volumes about his character later in the film. And that's one of the things I loved about The Gift. There are so many little things done deliberately that might not seem like a big deal when you first see it, but when you look back on them, actually turn out to mean something.

Everyone turns out a knockout performance in this. While it was strange seeing Bateman in serious mode, his turn really wasn't all that different from the asshole character he's become known for, just a slight and more serious variation of that. Edgerton was fantastic. Creepy would be an understatement. Outside of his performance, Edgerton did his homework, and did an outstanding job structuring an air-tight thriller using all the basic elements we've come to expect from the genre, and utilizing them to their full effect, resulting in a truly satisfying cinematic experience.

The Gift reminds me of the kind of thriller we used to get back in the 80's and 90's. You'd think that the genre would still be strong today, but surprisingly, it's not. So when a film like The Gift comes around, out of nowhere, and delivers the way a film like this should, it's a breath of fresh air.


Review: Dragonslayer

Directed by: Mathew Robbins
Category: Fantasy

Sometimes when I look through my DVD collection, I end up surprised when I find something I didn't even know I had, which in this case would be Dragonslayer. I honestly don't remember buying it. But I do remember always liking it, and always being impressed at how amazing it looked, even for an early 80's fantasy film. Funny thing is that this film has randomly been popping up in my head throughout the years, so when I was looking for something to see with my 12 year old son, I thought now was as good a time as any to revisit this, and to see if it was as awesome as I remember it being.

The answer is yes. Oh hell yes! If anything, Dragonslayer will make you angry at today's overuse of CGI, as it demonstrates the best of optical effects and old fashioned practical effects. Even if the film isn't your cup of tea, there's no denying it's stunning display of practical effects work. Miniatures, in-camera optical effects, blue screen, stop motion, and life-size replica's of dragon parts - mainly the head, arms and tail - will literally blow your mind. When I threw this on, none of us who were watching it could believe how amazing every single effects shot was, even though they look dated (not in a bad way, more like a nostalgic way), they still come off far more convincing than anything a computer can conjure up these days. It's pretty sad when you think about that.

Amazing effects work aside, Dragonslayer plays out pretty straightforward. When a wizard hired to slay a dragon who's been killing virgins of a nearby village unexpectedly dies, his apprentice (Peter MacNicol) takes it upon himself to finish the job. Really, that's it, but that's fine, because with it's simplified story, we're able to take in everything else, like the stunning geography, the incredible effects, and it's impressive overall visual aesthetic courtesy of director Mathew Robbins (* batteries not included). While Dragonslayer doesn't add anything new to the genre, it sure is a gorgeous looking film. You're constantly in awe of how stunning everything looks, from the production design, to it's huge scope and vast landscapes; everything looks epic for a small film made in 1981.

I've heard reports that MacNicol is actually emberrassed by this film and won't list it on his resume, and I honestly can't understand why. Maybe because he's playing kind of a kid? I don't know, but he has nothing to be ashamed about this. I hadn't seen this in decades....literally, and when I threw this on again recently, I was still shocked at how AWESOME this film is. From beginning to end, there's never a dull moment, emitting a constant charm that you rarely see in films anymore.

I'm surprised that director Mathew Robbins never really hit it big after this. In fact, to date, he's only got 7 directing credits to his name going all the way back to 1978 in a variety of genre's. Yet it's with Dragonslayer where he really shines. His camera work is nothing short of stunning, offering a genuine talent for fantasy filmmaking. His aesthetic, which could easily be described as ordinary by any average set of human eyes, is far more impressive when you take notice. After this he had 2 other cult hits with The Legend of Billie Jean and *batteries not included, both of which I haven't seen in ages, but fantasy seems to be the genre he was made for. Too bad he didn't revisit it again.

Easily one of the best dragon films ever made, it blows my mind that this doesn't quite get the reputation it deserves. It really is a genius piece of practical effects filmmaking at it's best. If you've never seen it, or haven't seen it in years, I highly recommend seeing it again ASAP. It's good. No, it's fucking great!


Review: Double Crosser

Directed by: Arizal
Category: Action

If Arizal's Final Score was him at his most outrageous, then Double Crosser is him at his most tame. Again, much like with American Hunter, I had high expectations going in, only to realize rather quickly that while this is indeed a fun and well made martial arts film, it displays none of the insanity of his cult classics. If anything, it's pretty much his most straight-forward film, of the ones I've seen anyway. And there's nothing wrong with that really, especially if you know this going in.

Double Crosser reteams Arizal with the ever enjoyable Peter O'Brian (The Stabilizer) in another paint-by-numbers tale of double crosses and revenge. Same story we've seen countless times before; guy's daughter gets kidnapped and it's up to her ex-cop father to save her. And while the film displays a mile-a-minute ferocity in terms of action, it's all rather tame. There's nothing in here that will blow your mind, or make you wonder if the stunt guy actually lived after that, unlike Arizal's earlier films Final Score and The Stabilizer. One thing I did find quite amusing is that this has some of the slowest car chases I've ever seen on film. Hilarious. And why does every single car chase end with a car flying through the air for no apparent reason?

But Double Crosser is not a total loss. I mean, if you're looking for a standard martial arts flick, you surely won't be disappointed, because that's all this is. It's fast and furious, with a fight breaking out nearly every 5 minutes, with the occasional super slow car chase thrown in for good measure. And as is the standard for all these films, the dubbing is awful, yet highly enjoyable.

Peter O'Brian is fucking fantastic, and does not dissappoint. I still don't know why he never made it bigger in the industry. He definitely displays a special type of charisma, even though every line of dialouge out of his mouth is horribly dubbed, but that's also what makes it hilariously entertaining. Why was his career cut so short? Was it by choice? Did he retire after only a handful of films, or were the jobs just not being offered? I don't know if we'll ever know, but I'm glad we at least have these few gems.


Review: Adam Chaplin

Directed by: Emmanuele De Santi
Category: ???

Somehow this film came upon my radar, and what's rather surprising to me as that while it seems right up my alley, I'd actually never heard of it before. So I did some digging and learned that it's a 2011 Italian gorefest written/directed/starring/shot/scored by a huge hulking guy by the name of Emanuele De Santi. I'm serious, this dude is ripped and quite intimidating. But anyway, I then started looking up comments and reviews all over the net and quickly learned this film has quite the following. I can't remember coming across a negative review, with most of them having nothing but praise for what was constantly referred to one of the goriest films they'd ever seen. So yea, I'm stoked! I track down a region free blu ray, invite a bunch of friends over, and prepare to take in the blood-soaked carnage.

With a very short run time of less than an hour and a half, when this was finally over, the vote was pretty unanimous among the group; Adam Chaplin was terrible, odd, and painstakingly dull. Here's the thing. I get what De Santi was trying to do here, and I love gore. I love to see shit that messes with you. I love how, much like the French, Italian gore just goes all out. But the painful truth with Adam Chaplin is that De Santi is a terrible director. I found his style of directing nauseatingly awful. There's no style, no substance. He shoots the entire film using closeups. I've never seen that before, and it's fucking annoying. It constantly feels like you're in a closed closet, even though half of the film takes place outside. There's no geography, no sense of where you are or how big anything really is. It's overly hammy (acting), so over the top (gore) that it all comes off as rather cartoony. So much so that we were all kind of turned off by it. It just came across as silly. Too bad too, because Adam Chaplin had potential.

The effects work here, while insanely over-the-top, is really impressive. I mean, there is some crazy shit in here. Heads, limbs, body parts, all getting cut off or crushed beyond all recognition, and while it is indeed cartoony and silly, the gore content is just badass enough that you could easily overlook the rest of the films many failings. The major problem with that is that there just isn't "enough" gore in here, and not nearly the amount you're expecting. Before the first credit rolls up in the beginning, you're treated to a scene of two guys getting brutally killed. Awesome. But then you have to wait a good 30 minutes for another gory scene, and as per usual, all the main stuff is saved for the end. But by that point you've already seen most of the same stuff in the first two acts of the film, so except for a cool impaling, there's nothing else in the end that will blow you away. And honestly, having to sit through an entire hour of some of the most boring and downright confusing exposition imaginable, coupled with some of the worst directing I've ever seen in a horror film, it's just too much. The end doesn't make up for the piss-poor quality we have to endure for an entire hour.

From what I can tell, it's set in the future, and Adam is either dead or indestructible, with the help of an evil parasite thing that comes out of his back and tells him what to do. He's seeking revenge for the death of his wife, or something like that. 

Like I said before, had this film just been filled with nonstop insane kills and gore, then the rest of the film's many, many failings could have been overlooked, but sadly, there's just too much annoying shit that will drive you insane by the end. It's too confusing, it's too slow, it's too dull, too much unnecessary use of green screen, annoying handheld messy camerawork, 99.9% of the film oddly shot in closeup shots, and some seriously hammy overacting. Even at a short running time, it still feels too long because of how boring it all is. I'm not even sure what genre this would technically fall under, because it's definitely not a horror film. A few online posts I found about it referred to it as a horror version of Fist of the North Star, but that's not really accurate either. To me, it's a weird experiment in filmmaking that just doesn't work, and it's too cartoony for it's own good.


Review: Red Sonja

Directed by: Richard Fleischer
Category: Fantasy

Somehow this film has always escaped me. Never mind the fact that it stars one of my idols, Arnold Schwarzenegger. And never mind the fact that in the 80's when I was a kid and going into my teenage years, Schwarzenegger was probably the biggest action star in my eyes. I don't know, something about this film never got my attention. Also, I've never met anyone who's ever said a good thing about it. That right there says a lot. But as I'm currently getting through Schwarzenegger's autobiography, I learned a few things about this production that instantly got me interested enough to want to see it, such as his affair with Brigitte Nielson, or how mega producer Dino De Laurentice suckered him into doing a cameo, only to trick him into co-starring in the entire film. I'm sure most of that is well known by now, but hearing it from Arnie's own mouth was better. So I went in with some expectations. I knew it was going to be bad, that's just the consensus. Hell, Schwarzenegger himself calls this film awful! But, how bad is what I wanted to find out. Would it be campy, yet entertaining bad, such as films like Flash Gordon, Swamp Thing and Masters of the Universe? Because if that's the case, I'm sure to love it. Or would it just be bad all around, where nothing is really salvageable in this mess?

Oh it's bad alright, but in an incredibly dull kind of way. Which is a damn crying shame because believe it or not, this film has a lot going for it, and I often found myself questioning how a movie can look so good, yet be so damn boring. And that's really Red Sonja's one and only biggest fail. It's dull as shit.

But that's just coming from an entertainment level, because believe it or not, Red Sonja has a lot of other things down really well. For instance, it's a stunner to look at. I'm not sure if it's all on director Richard Fleischer, or if his DP had a lot to do with it, but whatever the case may be, the visuals in here are near breathtaking with it's use of extreme sweeping widescreen shots, and just getting an amazing sense of geography in every scene.

Another aspect to Red Sonja's positive attributes is the stunning set and costume design. Really, it's fucking impressive. It's almost as if they took the flashy campiness of Flash Gordon, and redesigned it to fit the medieval era. And you know what? It works. Nearly every aspect of the design from the sets, to the costumes, to the construction of the temples all have a dark, yet surreal campiness to them. It's really hard to put into words, but it's something that's immediately noticeable, and combined with the excellent camerawork, make for a really satisfying visual experience altogether. Now, if only the film wasn't so damn dull.

Seriously, while Brigitte Nielson is cringe-worthy awful in a good half of her dialogue delivery, and Schwarzenegger almost seems to be hamming it up way more than usual, those unusually "bad" moments could easily be forgiven had this film been at least fun, or exciting, or just plain weird that you just can't look away because you can't believe what you're seeing. Kind of like your experience watching the amazing Never Too Young To Die. But Red Sonja possess none of those elements. I felt like I kept waiting and waiting for anything interesting to happen the entire time. And honestly, with the exception of a sequence where Arnie fights a living dragon statue under water, and a scene that had a bunch of golden skeletons randomly hanging from the ceiling which actually looked radically cool, there's not a single thing in here that stood out that will leave a lasting impression.

What's really frustrating is that all the elements are here for something great from both ends of the spectrum. On one end, the film looks amazing, and has an incredible sense of style that you clearly wouldn't expect from a film like this, especially given it's reputation, but it lacks any fun or excitement. Had the film had laughably bad dialogue, at least we would have had an entertainingly bad movie on our hands. Sadly we don't. And on the other end, if as much care had been put into the script as was put into the production design, we could have probably had one of the best swords & sandal films to come out of the 80's. With some clever dialogue, a better lead, and some genuine fun and thrills implemented into the story, this film really could have stood out. But ultimately, Red Sonja doesn't fall into either of these camps. All in all, it's a well made bore.


Bad Movie Night: American Hunter

Directed by: Arizal
Category: Action

In my constant quest to find obscure bad movies that defy logic and to most of the world's shock, become quite entertaining in their attempt at serious filmmaking, I often come back to Indonesian filmmaker Arizal. If you don't already know, he's the guy responsible for the amazing Final Score, and the totally bizarre and batshit crazy The Stabilizer. So when I'm hunting, digging, and searching for that WTF? obscure action flick that defies explanation, I tend to always come back to this action director's filmography.

I've known about this film for quite a while, but it never got the reputation his other films got, even though he was reteaming with Chris Mitchum, the star of his masterpiece Final Score. But the other day I finally decided to seek this one out, hoping for something that could measure up, even slightly, to Arizal's other classics.

Jake Carver (Mitchum) is a bad guy hunter, or something like that, who travels to Indonesia to track down the guys who stole a microfish, or microfilm, that contains information that will send Wall Street in turmoil. Also on the hunt for this microfilm is a bad guy by the name of Adam, also living in Indonesia, who will stop at nothing to get it. 

While American Hunter doesn't reach the level of absurd that made The Stabilizer and Final Score so memorable, as an action film where the laws of gravity or logic apply, it's a really fun experience. It's probably my own fault I wasn't blown away by this. I mean, it really is hard to top Final Score, and with The Stabilizer, as silly and ridiculous as it was, that also didn't nail it for me the way FS did. So I guess I had high hopes with this one, especially considering he was going at it again with the great Chris Mitchum. Unfortunately, there wasn't much in the way of WTF? excitement for me. The action was great, and the fight scenes flat-out absurd, yet there was nothing all that memorable in this. At least, not in the way you come to expect from this team.

In fact, as I try to look back on it, which was just literally a few days ago, I can hardly remember a thing about it, other than a very few key ridiculous moments that stood out. So all in all, it's a very tame experience compared to their other efforts. But that doesn't make it any less awesome. Sure it's full of awful dubbing, painfully slow car chases (which equal hilarious), awkward characters, WTF? moments that surely weren't done on purpose, and highly ridiculous scenes of Chris Mitchum attempting martial arts when it's painfully clear he doesn't actually know it, but it's just more straight-forward than you'd expect I guess, and less memorable overall.

It's a fun flick, there's no doubt about that, and far better than most you'll find in this little niche of bad movies. But I was left feeling a tad underwhelmed, and though great and fun, American Hunter wasn't quite as bonkers as I was hoping for.