Heyyy. So, I did this before and I figured I might as well do it again. Here are my film and fiction reviews and recommendations for the months of March and April. If you are interested in purchasing any of the titles featured here, I would appreciate you clicking the appropriate image which will bring you to that item on Amazon. It’s an affiliate link, which means it’ll help me out a bit if you buy the item through that link. Hey, every little bit counts, right? Anyway! ONTO THE STUFF.
As I mentioned last time, I’m now contributing film reviews to the website www.CityOnFire.com. City on Fire specializes in Asian action cinema, but there’s a lot of crossover into cult classics and genre films from all over the world. Being a fan of these sort of films, I’m rather enjoying contributing some reviews and shining the spotlight on films that may otherwise go unnoticed by Western audiences.
Ran—Akira Kurosawa’s final epic masterpiece. Ran is a Japanese retelling of Shakespeare’s King Lear. In the role of Lear we have Lord Hidetora (Tatsuya Nakadai, Yojimbo), an aging samurai warlord who decides to split his kingdom up amongst his three sons. One son calls him a senile old fool and is banished. Of course, the banished son is soon proven correct. The two other sons start a war, setting fire to everything that Hidetora had built. This is a brilliant film and I believe it’s one of those movies that everyone who loves cinema needs to see. It’s a sweeping epic, a fantastic Shakespeare adaptation, and quite simply one of the best films of all time. Read my full review at City on Fire, which goes into the production and shares a bit of info on Kurosawa’s later period.
Blind Woman’s Curse – Ever heard of Arrow Video? Well, if Masters of Cinema is the UK’s answer to the Criterion Collection, then Arrow is the UK’s Shout Factory. Good news, kids! Arrow has crossed the pond and will now begin releasing Blu-Rays in both the UK and the US (some licensing restrictions keep them from releasing everything in the US, though). The first Arrow release that I got my hands on was this bizarre Japanese horror/crime flick called Blind Woman’s Curse. It stars Meiko Kaji (Lady Snowblood) as a female yakuza boss that’s at odds with both a rival gang and a strange blind woman who goes around with an evil cat and a crazy hunchback. It’s pretty wild. I’d seen the film before I was given this disc for review purposes, but some of the imagery still shocked me a second time around. Read my full review here.
Day of Anger—One of the best spaghetti westerns not made by Sergio Leone. Lee Van Cleef stars as a dangerous stranger to takes a town’s unloved servant under his wing and trains him to be a gunfighter. It’s a tale of corruption, as a good young man is made cruel under the tutelage of a violent gunslinger. I really liked this one. Fans of westerns and Lee Van Cleef should definitely consider checking it out. The Arrow Blu-Ray features beautiful picture quality. Read my full review at City on Fire.
Massacre Gun—A jazzy yakuza film noir starring fan favorite Jo Shishido (Branded to Kill). This is not one of the best or the most original of Japan’s crime pictures, but it has a little bit of everything that fans of the genres love. Similarly, it seems to me that Massacre Gun is also a good starting point for those curious about classic yakuza crime films. Cool photography, cool score, cool action-packed finale, and of course Jo Shishido, one of the coolest actors there is. The Arrow Blu-Ray has some nice features, like an interview with Shishido and an interview with film historian Tony Rayns. Read my review over at COF.
Mark of the Devil—Well, this one’s a bit unpleasant. When this highly controversial film was first shown in US theatres, the filmgoers were given barf bags. Today Mark of the Devil is not as shocking as it once was… but it is pretty nasty. The film is about the witch trials that happened in Europe hundreds of years ago, when superstition and corruption led to the deaths of countless innocents. Mark of the Devil is a lot like the Vincent Price horror film The Witchfinder General, but with more blood and sleaze. I can’t say I loved the film, but I get why it has its fans. The Arrow Blu-Ray is packed with special features, so those fans should be very happy with the release. Read my full review.
The Admiral: Roaring Currents—This historical epic is South Korea’s biggest box office hit of all time. It tells the story of an admiral and his dozen warships which stood against hundreds of Japanese ships at a tipping point in Korea’s history. It's a story of great national pride, which probably explains why it was such a huge success. Foreign audiences likely won’t connect with it the same way that the Korean audiences did. It’s a flawed film. The Admiral has great action sequences and a strong performance from Choi Min-sik (Lucy), but some sappy melodrama and over-the-top depiction of evil Japanese really hurt the film. Read my full review at City on Fire.
Incident at Blood Pass—Toshiro Mifune’s most popular character of all time was the nameless ronin in the film Yojimbo (which would go onto to inspire one of Clint Eastwood’s greatest characters in A Fistful of Dollars). After the success of Yojimbo, Mifune would return to the character in three other films: Sanjuro (which is fantastic), Zatoichi Meets Yojimbo (which is enjoyable), and finally Incident at Blood Pass (which is. . . okay). Check out my review for more.
White Haired Witch—One of the most loved martial arts novels of all time was Baifa Monu Zhuan by Liang Yusheng. That work of fiction has been adapted many times, most notably in the cult classic The Bride with White Hair. Based on what I’ve read, White Haired Witch is closer to the original material of Yusheng’s book. However, White Haired Witch serves as proof that the more faithful adaptation is not always the better one. Read my full review at City on Fire.
I don’t have as many book recommendations to share this time around. This is partly due to the fact that I’ve been busy. . . and also because I recently read some books that I would not recommend. It’s generally considered unwise for authors to leave poor reviews for fellow authors. I understand why, so I've been trying to stick to that advice. So you know: I’m not likely to be posting any reviews for books I don’t like. Unless they’re classics. Maybe. Well, you know, I figure someone like Hemingway can take a punch.
Onto the good stuff...
Okay so, the first recommendation is a book that everyone’s reading this Spring: The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins. The book is a puzzle with a few pieces missing, and it works because of how and when the author decides to reveal those pieces. I also really liked the shifting first-person POV storytelling. The Girl on the Train is an impressive debut and an enjoyable mystery. Is it okay to call it Hitchcockian? It’s Hitchcockian. Read my full review at Goodreads.
I also recently read Stephen King’s short story collection Just After Sunset. While it's not one of my favorite King collections, there are some great stories in here. My favorite from the collection is N. I would even go so far as to say that the book is worth picking up for this story alone. N is about the uncovered files of a psychologist that committed suicide and the patient that led him to such a dark place. The patient known only as ‘N’ is an obsessive compulsive that went off the rails after visiting a field that he believes is a thin spot between our world and the dark world beyond. N gets creepier and creepier as it goes along, finally coming to what I consider to be a perfect finale. I love this story. It’s excellent and I consider it to be among King’s most frightening works of horror ever. Read my full review of Just After Sunset on Goodreads.
In April I decided to try out Marvel Unlimited, an online comic book database. It’s a bit like Netflix or Kindle Unlimited – but for Marvel comics. I used to read Marvel comics a lot when I was younger (Spider-Man was my favorite at Marvel and Batman my favorite at DC), but man I sure did miss a lot of interesting storylines between then and now. I decided instead of sampling a bit of everything that I would instead try to read one of the big Marvel event storylines. Considering that the Marvel cinematic universe is heading in the direction of Civil War, I figured I’d start there.
The Marvel Civil War is an epic event that takes place after a team of superheroes accidentally cause a disaster which results in the deaths of hundreds of people. The government passes the Superhuman Registration Act into law so that all powered or costumed heroes can be governed and kept in check. Iron Man and others back the law, feeling that they need to be held accountable for their actions. Meanwhile, Captain America leads a resistance against the law, which brings the two sides into conflict with one another.
There is a central story written by Mark Millar, a companion piece called Front Line, and many of the individual superheroes had tie-ins to the Civil War conflict. With so much to read, I had to pick and choose. Here’s my thoughts on the stories I decided to read. . .
Civil War – I enjoyed Mark Millar's Civil War book. There’s some cool action, interesting twists, and really good art. I guess I’ll never know if it works as well without the tie-ins, but as one big package it’s highly enjoyable.
The concept of a registration act leading to civil war amongst the costumed ranks is a cool idea for Marvel to do, and they handled the event with style. I liked that it was a more political Marvel story, sometimes with knowing nods to events in our history, now played out with capes and masks. And seeing heroes fight each other is cool because it gives fans a bit of something new, instead of just having them beat up on Doctor Doom all the time. I enjoyed the event and Millar's central story really works to hold it all together.
I do think that this particular story could've come to a more satisfying conclusion, though. While the final moments do hit home the ideas central to the story, it’s still a bit of a letdown. Still, the comic does forever alter the Marvel universe, so maybe I shouldn't be surprised that they limited the death toll in the final battle and pulled some punches. These are the heroes, after all.
But overall, I enjoyed myself. I haven’t read this many Marvel comics in years. It was fun. With the Marvel cinematic universe heading in the direction of Civil War, I’ll be curious to see how much has been altered and how much remains the same.
Front Line Vol. 1 and Vol. 2 -- While all the heroes are beating each other up, Front Line makes the Civil War storyline into a political conspiracy thriller. It’s really cool, really well done.
One of my issues with the Civil War event is that many of the stories (including the central one by Millar) don’t exactly reach the most satisfying conclusion. Front Line is the exception. While the other hero tie-ins make way for the central story only to have Millar’s Civil War pull its punches at the end, Front Line sticks to its guns and comes to a satisfying, surprising finale.
If you decide to read Civil War, you should try to fit Front Line into your reading time. It’s worth it, because it makes all the other stories better, while also telling a cool story of its own.
The Amazing Spider-Man -- Out of all the superhero Marvel Civil War tie-ins, this is my favorite. I grew up with Spider-Man comics. Even though I missed out on many big storylines over the years, I kind of felt like I knew all the big Spider-Man stories and the hero had no surprises for me. Well, I was wrong.
So, in the Civil War saga, Peter Parker is friends with Tony Stark and follows him when the superhero registration act is passed into law. Peter puts on the suit and fights against his former allies, while dealing with an internal struggle about whether this is the right thing to do. Tony wants Peter to become an example to the superhero community. But is Tony asking for too much? Themes of loyalty and the moral questions about the value of the registration act are best explored in this story more than any other.
I really liked this one. One of the best comics in the Civil War event and one of the more memorable Spider-Man stories I’ve read.
Punisher: War Journal— The Punisher tries to join Captain America’s team, but he doesn’t exactly fit in because he keeps killing people. If Front Line is Civil War’s conspiracy thriller, and all the other heroes lend more action to the conflict, then Punisher should be considered Civil War’s dark comedy. Lots of fun and great art.
New Avengers – A mixed bag of loosely connected stories about heroes impacted by the registration act. The Luke Cage story is cool but mostly these feel like filler for the bigger Civil War arc.
Iron Man – Iron Man is seen as the antagonist in the Civil War event in a lot of ways. This comic lends some perspective, as we see it more from his POV.
Captain America—Much of Cap’s best story bits in the Civil War arc comes in Millar’s book and in Front Line Vol. 2. This has some good stuff, though, and the shadowy art is especially cool.
And there were many more, but these were the best of what I read.
Furious 7: Or, the Importance of Not Taking Yourself Too Seriously and Just Having a Good Time.
Mortal Kombat X is nasty good fun. I’ve always been a big fan of this game series. This might be the most technically impressive entry to date. I’m really liking it.
A Most Violent Year is a classy crime drama from last year that deserves a larger audience. Oscar Isaac and Jessica Chastain are great in the lead roles. Director JC Chandor is producing one great film after another, slowly becoming one of my favorite directors working today.
Predestination is a strange little sci-fi thriller with Ethan Hawke. Just when you think the time travel sub-genre has run out of ideas, something like this comes along and shows you there’s still so much potential to the concept. Best time travel film since Primer. Really weird at times, but it’s a puzzle that I enjoyed watching come together.
Oh, and did I mention It Follows is scary as hell?
It Follows is scary as hell.
I think that’s it for now. . .
NEXT TIME: I will hopefully have more book recommendations! I also have some cool cult classic movies on my slate, so keep checking cityonfire.com for future reviews. And again, if any of these titles sound cool to you, I’d appreciate you clicking the links provided. Thanks!
In the coming weeks I will have some announcements about my next books (including the sequel to Death's Good Intentions) so keep checking back.
I recently saw David Robert Mitchell’s new horror film It Follows.
I think I love this film. It’s unique, weird, cool, disturbing, and has moments of holy shit terror. Saw it by myself in an empty theatre so I felt completely fine with screaming, “No!!” whenever I damn well pleased. In fact, I think that might be the best way to view the film. So, if you go to see it but find that there are others also in the theatre, kindly ask them to leave. I’m sure they will understand.
It Follows is about a sexually transmitted curse that finds its way to a young woman. She’s told that a thing that can look like anyone it chooses will follow her to the ends of the earth. Sometimes it’ll look like someone you know, sometimes it’ll look like a horrifying stranger. It’s not fast, but it never stops, it’s always out there, always following you. It means to kill the girl and her only way to get rid of the curse is to pass it on, but of course it’s never that easy.
The story is a unique blend urban legend curses, the terror of disease, plus loads of paranoia, madness, all with a backdrop of urban decay. The young cast is really good, especially the lead Maika Monroe. And I love the film’s score by Disasterpeace, which is a blend of John Carpenter, Blade Runner, and Trent Reznor. It’s one of my favorite film scores in a long time.
And oh yeah, I’m forgetting perhaps the most important thing: It Follows scared the hell out of me.
I think different kinds of horror films scare different people. Person A thinks jump scares are what make a horror film successful. Person B thinks it’s the blood and gore. Person C says it’s the disturbing themes. Person D doesn't like clowns. Person E, F, G, H, I, J, K… they all got their something.
Me? I’m most frightened by menacing camerawork, mood, and the director’s ability to build an overwhelming sense of dread. Cinema of unease.
CGI and fast-cutting edits do a disservice to most horror films, in my opinion. CGI may help make certain things come alive, but at least some part of your brain knows the thing isn’t really there, that you’re looking at a movie trick. Even though fake blood is also a trick, the mind accepts it in a different way because it’s clearly in camera. Similarly, fast cuts can make for a visceral, unpleasant horror experience, but they don’t build a sense of dread or deliver the creeps. I like it more when the director lets the camera linger there and makes everything in frame as real as possible. I get lost in the film, like the visuals have taken me somewhere I’d rather not be. That moment when I get lost, like I’m trapped there in the box the camera has made for the audience, that’s when my barriers fall away just enough to get the bejesus scared out of me.
Many of the horror films that scared me the most operate this way. Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining has its long, menacing steadycam shots that go through the halls of the Overlook. When the camera follows little Danny into a hall and spots the girls in blue, I’m always shaken up when the film assaults you with the sight of their dead bodies and all the blood. Kiyoshi Kurosawa films in a similar fashion. Films like Cure, Pulse, and Charisma have an ominous feel to them, which is the result of camerawork, music, lighting, and knowing when to cut to the next shot and when to let the scene linger. He conjures up dread in almost every scene. Other films like Alien, The Blair Witch Project, The Ring, The Exorcist, The Descent, and John Carpenter’s Halloween, they all scare me because the visuals and sound create an air of menace that other horror films don’t often have the patience for. As such, they’re some of my favorite horror films. Sure, rewatching them softens the scares, but I still return to them often because I admire the craft.
It Follows has a perfectly fine screenplay, but the film reaches modern classic status because of its threatening cinematography and its amazing score. Director Mitchell knows he has to be patient to set the hook before delivering the biggest scares. It pays off, and we get some truly great scenes. This sort of movie may not frighten everyone – those in need of blood and gore will find little to like here – but for those who like creepy, tense horror, It Follows is pretty great.
Writer of horror, science fiction, and dark fantasy. Lover of books and film. Lifelong Godzilla fan. Reluctant blogger.
Blog notice: mostly this blog is for sharing my thoughts and talking about my books. From time to time I will also comment on books, films, music, sports, and/or videogames. During these times I may use images of the creative works under discussion. I'm posting the images under the "fair use" allowance, for purposes such as criticism, comments, reporting, teaching, and research. If you have any issue with images used on this blog, please contact me and the images will be removed.
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