Saturday, January 4, 2014

On DVD/Blu-ray: NINJA: SHADOW OF A TEAR (2013); SWEETWATER (2013); and LAST LOVE (2013)

(US - 2013)

After the release of 2010's NINJA, a formulaic throwback to the likes of ENTER THE NINJA and AMERICAN NINJA, director and DTV action auteur Isaac Florentine and star Scott Adkins both expressed disappointment at the outcome, with Florentine saying the film relied too much on CGI and wirework.  For the sequel, both he and Adkins wanted to make a back-to-basics martial-arts movie, essentially crafting it as a do-over to function as both a sequel and a reboot.  Well, they got it right this time.  NINJA: SHADOW OF A TEAR is maybe the best movie Golan & Globus never made.  The CGI is very conservatively used, mainly on greenscreen work and background visuals, and even the Bulgarian clown crew at Worldwide FX seems to have brought their A-game for this one.  Adkins, who starred in Florentine's two excellent sequels to Walter Hill's UNDISPUTED, has been slowly making a name for himself in the cult action scene, with increasing visibility in films like THE EXPENDABLES 2 (as Jean-Claude Van Damme's chief henchman) and John Hyams' amazing UNIVERSAL SOLDIER: DAY OF RECKONING, as well as a brief supporting role in the Oscar-nominated ZERO DARK THIRTY.  And Florentine really needed to get back on the horse after the disappointment of NINJA and the disastrous ASSASSIN'S BULLET, easily his worst film.  NINJA: SHADOW OF A TEAR is a ninja film in the classic tradition, and looks much more expensive than it really is.  It's a shame that it, and Florentine for that matter, are confined to the world of DTV. 30 years ago, this would've been released in theaters and it would've been a hit.

Picking up where NINJA left off, Casey Bowman (Adkins) is living in Japan with his pregnant wife Namiko (Mika Hijii), the daughter of his late sensei.  When Namiko is brutally killed, an enraged, grieving Casey goes to Thailand to visit the dojo of her family friend Nakabara (Kane Kosugi, son of ninja genre legend Sho Kosugi).  Unable to contain his anger and prone to violent outbursts that bring shame to Nakabara's dojo, Casey decides to avenge Namiko's death after Nakabara tells him of a longstanding grudge held against his and Namiko's family by Myanmar drug cartel lord Goro (Shun Sugata).  Of course, Casey journeys to Myanmar and proceeds to ninja the living shit out Goro's organization and anyone who gets in his way.  David White's script won't win any awards for originality and, based on the fact that a prominently billed genre figure has very little to do, you'll probably figure out the twist long before Casey does, but with its jaw-dropping fight choreography, NINJA: SHADOW OF A TEAR is one of the top action films of 2013, and further proof that Florentine and Adkins are ready for bigger and better things.  There's absolutely no reason--other than the big-name actors' inability to keep up with his requirements--that Florentine shouldn't be helming something like THE EXPENDABLES 3.  There's always the possibility that he enjoys the relative autonomy he's granted working for Avi Lerner's Millennium/NuImage and is happy with the niche he's carved for himself.  After all, his experiences away from the company were unpleasant for him (I liked Florentine's 2008 Van Damme film THE SHEPHERD, though Stage 6 Films took it away from him in post-production) and/or his fans (the less said about ASSASSIN'S BULLET, the better), but even with a fervent cult following, Florentine is the best-kept secret in action filmmaking, and NINJA: SHADOW OF A TEAR is the real deal.  (R, 95 mins, also streaming on Netflix)

(US/UK/Germany/Canada - 2013)

With the ever-changing world of film distribution, good films inevitably get lost in the shuffle, often getting dumped in a just a few theaters and quietly turning up on DVD or on streaming services. The $7 million-budgeted SWEETWATER, which grossed a paltry $6000 during its very limited US theatrical release, isn't necessarily a "good" movie by the classic definition, but it's entertaining to an almost absurd degree, a frequently audacious and gleefully nasty little gem that comes very close to being the PUNISHER: WAR ZONE of westerns.  The Prophet Josiah (Jason Isaacs) is an insane minister/cult leader in the small, middle-of-nowhere Sweetwater, New Mexico.  After a property dispute involving his sheep grazing on the land of struggling--and unwelcome--immigrant farmer Miguel Ramirez (Eduardo Noriega) escalates, Josiah brutally kills Ramirez and has his underling Daniel (country music star Jason Aldean) bury the body.  Ramirez's pregnant, ex-prostitute wife Sarah (January Jones) awaits his return, miscarries, and is then abducted and raped by Josiah (who calls the vile act "purification"), who already has two wives and a daughter he intends to make his third (at one point, regarding his young daughter, he suggests the experienced Sarah "teach her how to fuck"), in addition to his fanatically-devoted flock, which seems to constitute the entire racist population of Sweetwater.  Meanwhile, eccentric lawman Cornelius Jackson (Ed Harris) arrives in town and immediately declares himself sheriff.  He ends up in Sweetwater while on the trail of two missing brothers (played by director/co-writer Logan Miller and his twin brother, co-writer Noah) who never turned up at their sister's ranch.  They were killed by Josiah for trespassing on the outskirts of his property, where they built a camp after a series of unfortunate travel mishaps, like a busted wagon wheel and a dead horse. With Sweetwater being the place directly in the middle of where they came from and where they were headed, it doesn't take long for Jackson to zero in on Josiah.

SWEETWATER actually has enough space to accommodate two thoroughly demented performances:  Isaacs is great in a fire-and-brimstone way as the homicidal Prophet Josiah, while Harris, who's never cut this loose onscreen before, enthusiastically hams it up as the not-quite-all-there Jackson.  Introduced screaming into a canyon, Harris just gets crazier from there, dancing his way into Sweetwater as he beats the shit out of the useless sheriff, exhumes the corpses of the two brothers and leaves them in Josiah's dining room, and later recites Lord Byron as Josiah crucifies him upside-down.  Jones underplays it as Sarah, which is fitting since the Millers basically turn her into a frontier Terminator once she escapes from Josiah's stronghold and goes on a vengeance-fueled killing spree throughout Sweetwater.  Let's just say SWEETWATER is the kind of movie where a masturbating, pantsless Peeping Tom gets a gun shoved up his ass and the trigger pulled.  It's the kind of movie where Harris' Jackson is attending a formal dinner at Josiah's and asks "You ever fuck a sheep?" before taking a knife and carving a map into the Prophet's cherished oak table.  Mean, misanthropic, hilarious, and often in questionable taste, the tragically under-the-radar, hard-R SWEETWATER is a film that should be embraced with open arms by connoisseurs of Batshit Cinema.  You know who you are.  (R, 94 mins)

(Germany/Belgium/US/France - 2013)

It's easy to imagine the meeting where the producers of LAST LOVE approached Michael Caine and told him something along the lines of "It's like VENUS with Peter O'Toole, but with you!"  The film ultimately goes in a bit of a different direction, but the comparison is still appropriate.  Caine is Matthew Morgan, a retired American philosophy professor living in Paris, still coping with the death of his wife Joan (Jane Alexander) three years earlier.  He still sees her and talks to her, and more or less goes about his days detached and biding his time until it's his turn to go.  Matthew befriends Pauline (Clemence Poesy), a young dance instructor he repeatedly sees on the bus.  The two become close friends, with Matthew being a father figure for her.  Matthew may or may not develop romantic feelings for her, but whatever he feels prompts him to (perhaps half-heartedly) attempt suicide by overdosing on sleeping pills.  Enter Matthew's estranged children, Miles (Justin Kirk) and Karen (Gillian Anderson), who come over from the States to convince him to move back home.  He refuses to leave Paris, where he's stayed since Joan's cancer diagnosis, at which time she decided to live out her last days there.  They're also suspicious of what's going on with "the French bimbo" who's entered their father's life.  When the self-absorbed Karen heads home, Miles, whose own wife just left him, decides to stick around as Pauline attempts to heal the rift between father and son.

This is one of those films where there's inevitable Big Revelations and the expected airing of long-dormant grievances.  Working from Francoise Dorner's novel La Douceur Assassine (translated: "Murderous Sweetness"), writer/director Sandra Nettelbeck (MOSTLY MARTHA) goes into areas that a mainstream American film wouldn't, chiefly that Matthew is kind of a prick to his kids.  And not in an amusing curmudgeonly way, either.  He tells Pauline that he never really wanted to have children but only did so to make Joan happy, and despite his expectations that he would, he never warmed up to the idea.  Once Joan passed on, it seems both Matthew and his children realized they had nothing more holding them together.  What Pauline provides for Matthew is that fatherly bond that he never felt with his own children.  In that sense, it's almost a European art film take on GRAN TORINO if you consider the way Clint Eastwood feels a kinship with his Hmong neighbors that he never felt with his own family, in similar tatters after the matriarch's passing.  LAST LOVE provides a nice showcase for 80-year-old Caine, though his attempt at an American accent is inconsistent, to put it mildly.  He slips into his usual Michael Caine voice a lot, but his idea of sounding American is mainly to talk deeper and slower. You wouldn't even know he's supposed to be playing an American if it wasn't mentioned in every other scene.  But, living legend that he is, he still maintains the screen presence.  His scenes with Poesy are sensitively and believably conveyed by the actors.  US distributor Image Entertainment didn't even try to do anything with this, dropping half of the title (it was released overseas as MR. MORGAN'S LAST LOVE) and giving it a one-screen US release a few weeks before its DVD/Blu-ray debut.  The film and its star deserved a little more effort than that.  By no means a great film, but it's a nice, low-key one that Caine fans will want to seek out.  (Unrated, 116 mins)

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