Before Vin Diesel was XXX and before he got behind the wheel as Dominic Toretto, he was Richard B. Riddick in Pitch Black, a small-budgeted creature flick that far exceeded expectations. It was delightfully simple in premise, centering on a group of people stranded on a desolate planet and attacked by its native nocturnal predators. Riddick, known for his famous "night shine" eyes, became a popular new character in the sci-fi realm, and the first proof of Diesel's future stardom. But then Universal screwed it all with the misguided sequel, The Chronicles of Riddick, an expensive and convoluted PG-13(!!!) mess that nearly shattered any franchise hopes. But through years of cultivating his audience and picking their brains about what they wanted most out of the series, Diesel has returned with the fourth (if you include the animated Dark Fury, which I definitely do) entry, Riddick, an economical and solidly entertaining film that recaptures everything that made Pitch Black such a cult favorite.
Immediately it's obvious the gloss and sheen of the last film are gone, replaced with the gritty, washed-out look of the original. The yellowish tint that marks the ruinous locale may not be pretty, but it's far superior to the artificiality that plagued 'Chronicles'. Beginning in shockingly pulpy fashion, the film finds the bad ass Furyan stranded on a planet not unlike the one from Pitch Black. Beaten, battered, and defeated in a way we've never seen Riddick before, it's clear that something's not quite right. As he struggles to survive encounters with a pack of monstrous dingoes, eventually taking on one as a sort of sidekick, we learn through flashback that he was betrayed and left for dead. Riddick, who became king of the Necromongers (don't ask) at the end of the prior film, has let leadership make him soft. What better way to get back his lost savagery than by taking on an entire planet full of bloodthirsty creatures?
The first hour of the film is spent with Riddick in full survivalist mode as he tries to figure out a way past a poisonous hydra monster that looks like it was ripped straight out of Alien. While it gets a little tedious watching him build up immunity to its venom and navigating mountains, it's also refreshing to see the film bask in its Predator-esque roots. However it's still a lengthy slog, a long way to go before a team of mercenaries arrive and the plot actually begins. Yes, there's an entire separate storyline you have to wait for, but that's also when things get really bloody and very fun.
Forced to activate a distress beacon, Riddick soon finds himself surrounded by two teams of mercs, all looking to collect on the bounty placed on his head. And if they walk away with Riddick's head in a box, even better because the bounty will be doubled. The lead merc is Santana (Jordi Molla), the cockiest killer by far and thus the most foolish. We know immediately what his fate will be, and that it will be especially gruesome. Diesel's Guardians of the Galaxy co-star Dave Bautista is the hulking brute Diaz; Battlestar Galactica nerds will get to see Katee Sackhoff nude as Dahl; and Matt Nable (a Jeremy Renner clone in look and voice) is Boss Johns, and if his name sounds familiar then you know way more about the Chronicles of Riddick chronology than any sane person should. Suffice it to say, he's got a reason to want Riddick dead, and it's a mystery that plays out in fits and starts throughout.
From here the action picks up as Riddick goes from the hunted to the hunter, picking off his pursuers one-by-one. Even when he's ultimately captured he's still the most dangerous guy in the room, who proves to be just as deadly with his tongue as with a serrated blade. After the bland "all-ages" Riddick from 'Chronicles' it's a treat to see him back to being a vulgar and nasty killer. Every other character is a cheap cardboard cut-out with dialogue slathered in melted cheese, but they serve their purpose either as cannon fodder or targets of Riddick's chaotic masculinity.
What's most obvious about the film is that Diesel and series writer/director David Twohy put everything they had into it. It was Diesel who fought hard with the studio to secure the R-rating because he knew the fans wanted the gore and violence, and when the self-financed production faced a potential shut down it was him who put up the cash to get it moving again. While there are moments when you can see the cracks around the edges, visually it doesn't look cheaply produced, and what low budget qualities it has only solidify that this is a franchise going back to its roots. Without completely ignoring Chronicles of Riddick or rehashing Pitch Black, they've set Riddick back on the right track. The obvious plan is for this to be the first in what will probably be a series of sequels, and with the character free from excess baggage that's a prospect once again worth looking forward to.
Part Mad Max, part Death Race 2000, there's never a dull moment in Henry Saine's wildly over-the-top Bounty Killer, a film with style and silly amounts of violence to spare. Right from the beginning we're thrust into a balls-out insane future world where corporate CEOs are running everything; crony capitalism has ruined the country, and the only means of fighting back the people have is to trust in bounty hunters to kill off those responsible. These mercenaries reap the adoration like modern day superheroes, splashed across tabloid headlines and followed by their legions of fans. While there's potential for a darker exploration of celebrity culture, Saine and screenwriter Jason Dodson wisely choose to aim for maximum B-movie schlock value.
Smaller budgeted films with a grindhouse aesthetic are a dime a dozen, but few are as wholly entertaining as Bounty Killer is, and it starts with the cast who all seem to having the time of their lives. In particular, Christian Pitre is a real find, playing the sexy and lethal Mary Death. When we first meet her she's mowing through a bunch of armed goons in a strip club alongside Drifter (Matthew Marsden), just to take out one dorky CEO. Bullets fly, heads get lopped off, fountain of blood spurt, and yep there's even a jet pack in there somewhere. It's all ridiculous but tons of fun, and sets the stage for a ton of insanity that extends far beyond the mass amounts of bloodshed.
Drifter and Mary Death share a past, one that makes them reluctant rivals in the competitive world of wetworks. She's a superstar; complete with a diva attitude and of course her own bad ass muscle car, while Drifter is more of a grinder. He wants to do the job and avoid all of the celebrity nonsense that comes along with it, but we learn there are other reasons he desires to stay out of the spotlight. When a bounty is put on his head, everybody comes looking to collect. That includes cannibalistic Gypsies in Halloween war paint, Gary Busey, and even Mary Death herself. Yeah, that's right, Gary Busey is in here too, and it probably won't shock you that he fits in like a glove. His character description might have read: "Act like Gary Busey".
It's the little touches that make this totally unbelievable world Saine has created go off without a hitch, and those quirks are what make it so enjoyable. For instance, all of the top bounty hunters have what is called a "gun caddy", and he does exactly what you think he should. Drifter picks up a particularly overzealous and earnest one in Jack (Barak Hardley), who also happens to be clumsy and not especially good at his job. But he's also hilarious, and has the film's best zingers.When he and Drifter are captured by the Gypsies, led by R&B star Eve no less, he remarks on his general tastiness, "They're going to love me. I'm so marbled."
The cast is an oddball assortment of fresh faces and veterans, all of whom are having way too much fun. Pitre is terrific as Mary Death, showing sensuality and a rugged toughness that is as appealing as her low-cut skirt. Ex-Terminator Kristanna Loken shows up in a more buttoned-up role than we've ever seen her, playing the film's corporate villainess. Marsden, who was great a few years ago in video game adaptation DOA, is overshadowed a little bit by Pitre and Hardley. His character is a little too easy going to stand out amongst all these flashy wackos, but he makes for a solid, vaguely Mel Gibson-esque leading man.
Bounty Killer began life as a comic and short film, and it combines elements of both in good and bad ways. The kinetic pace often resembles the panels of a really well-executed comic book, but other times you get the sense that there isn't enough material for a full-length feature film. While it's never dull, because these characters are so unique and fully-formed, there are empty spots that just don't have the same zip.
Saine attacks the action sequences with reckless abandon, reveling in the gore and excessive explosions, to the point where the budget rarely seems like a factor. It takes real skill to make a small-scale film look like a major production, and he's pulled it off. Bounty Killer looks good, has a ton of ambition, and stands up confidently next to Robert Rodriguez's Machete in the realm of hyper-violent grindhouse.
Originally titled The Grandmothers, then hitting Sundance as Two Mothers, producers ultimately settled on Adore for their erotic drama starring the always-wonderful Robin Wright and Naomi Watts. Going through multiple titles is something many films go through, but in this case it's almost as if they're trying to run away from something, and that may be the uncomfortable and nervous laughter inspired by the premise, which has two longtime best friends entering into sexual relationships with the other's son.
The very idea of it plays with our sense of morality, our sense of what is sexually acceptable, especially here in America where sex is so often looked at as such a taboo. In her first English-language film, director Anne Fontaine reserves judgment on the women without completely letting them off the hook for their irresponsible actions. The problem lies in Christopher Hampton's script, which never goes into the dark, sordid territory a story such as this demand, and lacks the passion it deserves.
Lil (Watts) and Roz (Wright) have carved out a little corner of paradise for themselves on the picturesque shores of New South Wales. Friends since childhood with a love for one another that hasn't dimmed as they approach middle age, their families are so intertwined it's tough to tell where one begins and the other ends. Liz has been widowed for years, while Roz's husband (Ben Mendelsohn) has just taken a job in Sydney with the obvious expectation that his wife and son Tom (James Frecheville) would join him. But he's seriously underestimated the co-dependent nature of Roz and Lil's relationship, which has them more concerned with one another than anything else. Lil barely speaks to her son Ian (Xavier Samuel) at all. In fact, the two women barely notice their sons until they're blinded by the surfers' glistening abs, "They're like young gods!" they exclaim. Yes, the dialogue is like something ripped from a trashy romance novel, lacking in any nuance whatsoever.
While there's no incest involved on a physical level, the suggestion that emotional impropriety has definitely taken place, and it begins with the fact that both women have raised the other's son fairly equally. They may not have been good mothers in a traditional sense, but in a communal sense they seem to have done a pretty good job. Ian and Tom have grown to become reasonably decent, attractive young men with bright futures. When Ian suddenly makes a move on Roz, she initially resists before giving in, taking advantage of her husband being temporarily out of the picture. Tom, quickly discovering the affair, decides that all's fair and immediately makes a move on Lil.
It's not fair to say that nobody feels any guilt over it once everything comes out in the open; it's just that we never see it. One would think that the first conversation between Lil and Roz after everything came out in the open would be heated, or at least impassioned. But no, that's not the case. It isn't really rational or reasoned, either. When the boys get into a fight, we're left to assume it's over their nailing the other's mom, but that doesn't really make sense. The two remain best friends and seem happy discussing the situation. We're never clued in to what the physical altercation was about, and everything is normal within moments. Too much is underplayed here to be taken seriously, and that extends to later on when Lil and Roz's worst fears are realized and the boys begin to move on to more age-appropriate women.
What saves the film from going totally into Russ Meyer or John Waters territory are the performances by Watts and Wright, really nailing the emotional complexities between these two women who are more like siblings than friends. Wright has a bit more to work with as her character must juggle spousal expectations with her own emotional desires. There's a lived-in, genuine quality to every scene these two remarkable actresses share. Fontaine, who helmed the dreamy Coco Before Chanel, brings some of those surreal attributes to the idyllic setting. She uses the beautiful imagery to perfectly counter the growing chaos as a complicated situation grows messier.
At its premiere in Park City, reports were that the audience was laughing when they clearly weren't meant to be, a fact which perplexed Fontaine at the press conference. A film like Adore should make you uneasy. It should make you feel a little sick at how much damage these characters are causing. It shouldn't leave you smiling, which just goes to show how much of a miscalculation the film turns out to be.
Let's get the easy stuff out of the way first; The Grandmaster is the most breathtakingly beautiful martial arts film ever made. Crafted with exquisite precision by famed Hong Kong director Wong Kar-Wai, the lush, passionate flourishes of his earlier dramas now romanticize the brutal art of kung fu. There are so many images here that will be burned into memory, each battle moves with such balletic grace they make Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon seem as if it's standing still. From a visual standpoint, Kar Wai has outdone himself. But as a film that is meant to chronicle the life of Wing Chun master Ip Man (Tony Leung), the man who famously trained Bruce Lee, it never quite measures up.
Harvey Scissorhands strikes again! That's pretty much been the cry since Weinstein edited a shorter cut of the film specifically for American audiences, one that dropped about 20 minutes of crucial backstory. While I'm not one of those to slam ol' Harvey for his butchery of the studio's foreign film slate, the impact of his choices are obvious with The Grandmaster. What should be an across-the-board chronicle of Ip Man's tumultuous life in 19th century China, is more like the Cliffs Notes version, lacking substance and emotion until the next fight can break out.
The film begins with what can only be described as an astonishing rain-soaked battle, probably the scene that had Weinstein salivating in the first place. Ip Man is just a regular man in a time when tensions have ripped China into factions from the North and South, a split that has also affected the regional schools of kung fu. In an effort to unite both sides under one leader, Ip Man is chosen to challenge the northern grandmaster, but ends up falling hopelessly in love with his daughter Gong Er (Zhang Ziyi), who has inherited his style known as the "64 Hands". Yes, this is one of those movies where all of the techniques have wild names and they are announced with vigor before they're used in combat. Kar-Wai basks in that world, creating dreamy, atmospheric settings for impeccable action that is easy to get swept up in.
That's unfortunately all there is to latch on to, however, as we learn very little that is new about Ip Man, a figure who has had multiple movies and TV series devoted to him already. We barely get a glimpse of his family life before he loses them after the Japanese occupation, and the film meanders aimlessly when he hits Hong Kong to...well, basically meander aimlessly. We see his rise to prominence against the backdrop of China's demise, then his fall from grace, but none of it has a clear focus. Not helping are jarring shifts in perspective as we get treated to thumbnail explanations for major events in his life and that of Gong Er, as they supposedly pine for one another over the course of ten years. Leung and Ziyi do sorrowful longing better than almost anybody, so when together it often feels like you're in one of Kar-Wai's passionate masterpieces like In the Mood for Love or Lust, Caution. But we don't actually see them together that often, and there's simply not enough of a shared emotional connection. Having seen the fuller version, it's these crucial back story elements that have been excised for the benefit of smoother transition to the action. What Weinstein doesn't recognize is that providing richer characters only gives the fights a deeper impact.
What ends up happening is that you'll be waiting patiently for another altercation to break out, because that's when the film truly comes alive. Leung makes for a perfect choice to play the stoic Ip Man, a man of peace and a walking weapon, who wrestled with that dichotomy every single moment. Nobody knows how to capture Zhang Ziyi's ferocious beauty better than Kar-Wai, and the film's most memorable, poetic images have her as the centerpiece. Ultimately she steals the entire film away from Leung as we begin to focus on Gong Er's journey to reclaim her father's legacy; a quest that ends with an unreal train station fight as the snow softly drifts.
A decent Wong Kar-Wai film is still going to be miles ahead of other directors' best work, and chances are you're not going to see better martial arts action than what The Grandmaster provides. Perhaps it's fitting that it ends with a sizzle reel of Leung beating up other stage fighters, because basically what The Grandmaster turns out to be is a highlight reel on Ip Man's legendary life.