Miami Connection Blu-Ray Review (Robert Harding)

Miami Connection

Miami Connection Blu-Ray

Starring Y.K. Kim, Vincent Hirsch and Joseph Diamand

Directed by Y.K. Kim, Woo-sang Park

When you think of B-grade action films from the 80s you might conjure up visuals of martial arts, big hair, uzis, large mustaches, gangs, and ninjas. With Miami Connection you get all that and more within the first 5 minutes! This practically never before seen film from 1987 is the masterpiece of Y.K. Kim who not only stars in the film but wrote, produced, financed, cast and even directed.

Miami Connection tells the story of a group of Tae Kwon Do musicians called Dragon Sound who end up crossing paths with a group of local drug dealing punks. It’s not a very friendly get together and things quickly get ugly… for the punks! But when the punks enlist the help of biker ninjas, the fights turns out to be more than Dragon Sound expected.

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While this is a Blu-ray release, don’t expect pristine visuals and audio. The disc opens with a message stating that “Miami Connection was almost lost when a hurricane destroyed the film’s original negative in 2004. Our transfer was assembled from the best existing materials and scanned at 2K resolution. Due to the nature of the available elements, some imperfections and inconsistencies may occur.” While there is no fault in the transfer of the film, the film is full of print damage.  There has been no restoration done and while that is a little disappointing, one might say it adds a bit of an “authentic feel” to the presentation.

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The story behind Miami Connection from how it came about, to how it disappeared, to how it was eventually found again is almost as interesting as the film itself and is documented in a small booklet insert. Other extras include “Friends for Eternity: The Making of Miami Connection” which runs about 20 minutes long  and is less a making of and more a retrospective consisting mostly of interviews with cast and crew some 20 years after the fact. There’s an “Alternate Ending” which running a little over two minutes is actually the original ending which was later re-shot when Y.K. Kim couldn’t find anyone who liked the movie. There are a bunch of “Deleted Scenes” running a total of just under 12 minutes. “Dragon Sound Reunion Concert from Fantastic Fest 2012” is 10 minutes of footage shot at Fantastic Fest of the actors on stage blended with film footage as Dragon Sound perform a 6+ minute version of “Friends” followed by “Against the Ninja.” Running about two minutes long   “Who is Y.K. Kim?”  is a cute little piece that gives some background about Mr. Kim through what must be an introduction video used at seminars Y.K. Kim puts on before he comes on stage. “The New American Dream” is over 22 minutes long and is an infomercial for Y.K. Kim’s “The New American Dream” program.  The main extra is the audio commentary by Y.K. Kim and Joe Diamand mediated by Drafthouse Cinema programmer Zack Carlson. It is mostly Mr. Carlson doing a screen specific interview as he tries to get the two guys talking. Rounding out the extras are trailers for The Ambassador, Bullhead, Klown, Wake in Fright, the Drafthouse Alliance Stinger, and the 2012 trailer for Miami Connection, a reversible cover for the Blu-ray, and a digital download of the film.

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Y.K. Kim first set out when making this film to promote his philosophy and physical ability.  Despite the poor acting (most actors in the film were simply friends of Y.K. Kim), low budget, and clear lack of filmmaking talent (Y.K. Kim had almost zero encounters with movies prior to taking on many of the aspects of the film), Miami Connection clearly drives home the ideas of friendship, perseverance and positive attitude. It’s especially obvious in the theme song “Friends” with its catchy chorus.  Though not intentionally comical, those involved in the film seem to have come to embrace the fan reaction of this film who clearly enjoy it as a piece of b-movie schlock full of camp, and fun filled sequences. The film as a whole plays out as a very entertaining advertisement for Tae Kwon Do just as Mr. Kim intended. Except that, upon viewing it, Y.K. Kim noticed that it was extremely violent which was in contrast to his martial arts teachings. So, in perfect b-movie fashion, in order to rectify this over abundance of violence he added a simple sentence to the end of the film (as if a few words would correct the 80 previous minutes), “Only through the elimination of violence can we achieve world peace.” An almost perfect ending to this SoBIG (so bad it’s good) martial arts extravaganza.

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Killing Them Softly Review (Dustin SanVido)

Killing Them Softly Poster

Killing Them Softly (2012)

Starring Brad Pitt, Scoot McNairy, Ben Mendelsohn, James Gandolfini, Ray Liotta and Richard Jenkins

Directed by Andrew Dominik

Sitting in a car conversing with his go-between mob lawyer (Richard Jenkins), Jackie Cogan (Brad Pitt) takes a moment to explain his preference for murder: he dislikes doing it up close, as people become emotional, and sometimes try anything to talk their way out; he prefers to “kill them softly” from a distance. This is just one of the moments in Andrew Dominik’s latest that is oozing with analogical orgasms in nearly every scene and sequence. Killing Them Softly is a methodically paced, supremely acted, brutally violent and masterfully written neo-noir, and is a solid entry in the director’s furthering career.

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The story follows Cogan, a problem fixer for the mob who is called upon to investigate a robbery at a mob-controlled card game that has halted the influx of a key revenue stream. Those responsible must be found and dealt with accordingly, and that’s what Jackie Cogan specializes in. Like the film itself, Cogan is steely eyed, carries himself with a workman-like attitude and assured confidence, and is rife with cynicism. Beginning the story and coinciding with Cogan’s investigation that follows are the perpetrators of the robbery, who couldn’t be any more the polar opposite of our anti-hero. On one hand there’s Frankie (Scoot McNairy), a small time criminal who is looking for that one job that could propel him into realizing his delusions of grandeur. On the other, there’s Russell (Ben Mendelsohn), a drug addicted freelancer who’s just looking for enough work to further his career aspirations as a drug dealer. Supporting our variety of antagonists is washed out hit man Mickey (James Gandolfini), the manager of the card game Mark (Ray Liotta), a third accomplice to the robbery (Vincent Curatola), and the aforementioned mob lawyer (Richard Jenkins) who refers to his employers as a group of handicapped children who need to be walked through every little detail. How these characters come into the presence of one another and interact is the biggest joy of the film. Everyone involved brings their A-game to the table, even if their participation is somewhat brief, because it’s the briefest moments in Killing Them Softly that leave the biggest impact.

Killing Them Softly

It’s easy to say and ironic that this is Brad Pitt’s best film since Dominik’s last, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. I’ve always enjoyed Pitt when he’s in manic crazy mode ala Tyler Durden in Fight Club or in Twelve Monkeys, but it seems his penchant for picking his roles very carefully and sparingly has made and kept me a fan. Ben Mendelsohn is a rising talent who has been on the up and up since his fantastic turn in the under seen Animal factory and I’ve never disliked any of his performances thus far. Considering he’s normally some type of scum bag, be it corporate or criminal, that takes serious talent. Scoot McNairy was introduced to the world in the similarly under-seen Monsters, and is on a similar rise. His character is a loser, but his fragility and teenage-like demeanour are sold perfectly and it’s fun to watch him interject self-depreciating humour into the situation and at characters he’s interacting with. Gandolfini, Liotta, Curatola, and Jenkins are all exactly what you’d expect them to be, slipping into the exact types of characters you’ve come to expect from these seasoned veterans of criminal drama, Jenkins being the standout.

Killing Them Softly at its core is a reflection of the United States, and specifically the recent economic collapse and government bailout. Whereas in Cogan’s Trade, the novel the film is based on took place in the 1970’s, Killing Them Softly takes place in an unspecified New York neighbourhood circa 2008, and makes a great effort throughout to let its viewers know what’s happening in this story is not unlike what happened to that country during the recession. Time is taken to interweave the narrative with televisions and radios airing speeches from the former President George Bush, and current President Barack Obama. Sometimes it’s blatant, and sometimes it’s just background noise. The similarity is never more clear than in the exceedingly satisfying ending, where Cogan’s cynicism towards life in America completely boils over due to the actions of another. At times I felt beaten over the head by this point, although I appreciate that Dominik respects his audience’s intelligence enough that he’s willing to throw so much subtext onto the screen.

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That being said, this is a film for people who love cinema, and for those who prefer a slow burn rather than a frantic action movie (the kind of film this was ironically marketed as). It’s unapologetic, brutal and beautiful to look at. There are no happy endings or stylistic tones found within that would appeal to a general audience. If you’re a fan and are familiar with Dominik’s writing and directing style, you are going to get exactly what you desire: a series of dialogue driven sequences sometimes punctuated by a moment or sequence of visceral bloody violence in the vein of his earlier work. If you walked in thinking you were getting a slick and well choreographed brainless gangster flick, then go watch Gangster Squad. Films like Killing them Softly prove that in today’s world of franchises, tent poles, and celebrity-vehicles, there is still quality-fare to be discovered and enjoyed.

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Life of Pi Review (Paolo Kagaoan)

Life of Pi (2012)

Starring Suraj Sharma, Irrfan Khan, Rafe Spall and Gerard Depardieu

Directed by Ang Lee

The opening credits already worried me, showing me every exotic animal with names I’ve already forgotten in the slowest pace possible. Is this the beat that Life of Pi will be flowing to?

This adaptation of novel of the same name show these animals within a zoo that’s managed by the father of the young Piscine Molitor or ‘Pi’ Patel (Sharma), the latter being an Indian boy growing up in Pondicherry, a land transforming from French colonization into joining independent India.

The adult version of Pi (Khan) lives in Montreal, his voyage between the two countries – or three, for technical purposes – is so compelling that an off-screen character named Mamaji recommended him to a man (Spall) who’s stuck on what he’s going to write. Pi is a religious professor, the writer is a North American brand of young secular atheist. Both of them aren’t smug about their intellectual backgrounds. But part of Mamaji’s recommendation of Pi is that his story will convince the writer that God exists but again, not in a smug way. I can feel some eyes rolling at such a premise.

I loved the book, its simple language evoking the energy of a boy’s growth and his lonely and one in a trillion journey that puts him in the middle of the Pacific Ocean in the same lifeboat as a terrifying tiger named Richard Parker. Or at least, that’s what I remember from the novel.

It’s the opposite of the film’s approach. Again, the pacing in the first scenes, as well as its mixture of Indian and French music softening the impact of the moments when Pi takes a stand on his (religious) identity. It almost damages my experience of the entire film. Those scenes should have amped us up to the movie’s climax, its chaos building up and complementing the ocean’s disturbing quietness. The scenes in India as also have this digital, amateurish texture capturing the shallowest characters in Ang Lee’s directing career.

His time in the ocean, then, isn’t stark but a magical although scary time. Allow me to compare this another director’s work, James Cameron, who has championed the film. I’ll also say that the shipwreck scenes, when the camera occasionally follows Pi in and out of ships and lifeboats, are more audacious than its predecessor. And since Pi, Richard Parker and the rest of us are out in the ocean, we get to see every type of real marine life that evokes the fictional life forms in Avatar. I never pegged Lee as a visual director but his rural/exurban landscapes should have given me that hint, and the aesthetics are what I can give this movie its credit. It’s worth the 3D medium although it’s not necessarily worth its price.

But does watching someone with God’s creatures, or watching him in a Job-like situation make anyone feel closer to God? Not necessarily (Full disclosure: you probably all know that I’m gay but I’m also a Catholic, one of the religions that Pi adheres to). The movie dazzles and thrills but its main goal should come from a text not just about wonderment but endurance and perseverance. I never really felt those here, and knowing the movie’s ending, as well as other factors in the movie’s storytelling might have spoiled that for me. The ending also doesn’t offer any answers, and this is the kind of movie that should have done that.

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Lincoln Review (Nadia Sandhu)

Lincoln (2012)

Starring Daniel Day-Lewis, Sally Field and David Strathairn

Directed by Steven Spielberg

Don’t let the period costumes in the trailers fool you, Lincoln is no ordinary biopic. In point of fact, this film is not a biopic at all, but rather a snapshot of a final heroic act of politicking by one of the smartest  politicians to ever grace monetary currency.  The film opens as Lincoln is re-elected to a second term and the Civil War is dragging on towards its foregone conclusion.  Political intrigue and legal maneuvering are the order of the day as the president races to codify his maybe not so legally binding Emancipation Proclamation in the Thirteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution  – the abolition of slavery.

You won’t get to see how Abraham went from log cabin to the White House, or why his election in 1860 caused rich plantation owners who didn’t vote for him to rise up and secede from the Union (I’m looking at you @realDonaldTrump).  Rather, Lincoln is a movie about the vision and tenacity that makes a great leader and stands in marked contrast to the recent US Election Sideshow.  One hopes newly re-elected President Obama watches this film for useful political instruction STAT.  Actually one hopes the Republican backroom boys head out en masse as a timely reminder that political leadership is not the same thing as good business management and maybe, just maybe, Karl Rove’s heart will grow two sizes as he is reminded what being a Republican has meant to his country. I digress.

Masterful filmmaking meets THE acting performance of the Millennium (to date) as director Steven Spielberg and lead actor Daniel Day Lewis pull back the curtain on a dramatic, violent, emotional period where a pragmatic, rational, but no less visionary man used every trick in the book to successfully perform a political sword dance that safe guarded basic principles of democracy while still maintaining the sanctity of the law (even if it had to be bent to achieve the former).

It is not every day that a film comes along that everyone must see, but this is that film. See it tonight. Skyfall can wait! (Ed – Skyfall can’t wait, see both!)

Toronto After Dark 2012 – Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning Review (Matt Hodgson)

Toronto After Dark Film Festival

Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning

Starring Jean-Claude Van Damme, Dolph Lundgren and Scott Adkins

Directed by John Hyams

The Toronto After Dark Film Festival is definitely known for the weird and scary movies that their lineup is often full of, but let’s not forget that they are not strangers to playing hard hitting action movies. Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning looked to be the most action-packed movie of the lineup, but it also sounded like direct to DVD release with little appeal for the film festival crowd. What gives guys, why did you choose this movie to fill one of your 20 feature film slots? After walking out of Universal Soldier the answer was clear: this was one of the weirdest and most atonal movies of the entire festival, and in a good way – a very good way.

Viewers don’t need to be particularly well-versed with the Universal Soldier franchise in order to enjoy Day of Reckoning. Simply an understanding that universal soldiers are men who have been engineered to deal out and absorb inhuman amounts of combat damage should be plenty of background information for this installment. Day of Reckoning sees John (Adkins) lose his family after a very disturbing home invasion sequence. Left for dead, John miraculously wakes up in a hospital and slowly begins to regain his cognitive functioning, mobility, and strength. It’s essential that he gets healthy in a hurry as he has one thing on his mind – revenge. Despite some hazy memories, one of them is very clear: the face of the man who killed his family, Luc Deveraux (Van Damme). The rest of the movie follows John as he tries to exact his bloody revenge on anyone who tries to get in his way.

The initial marketing (trailer) for Day of Reckoning did not do the movie justice. The initial trailer made the movie look very entertaining as it was jam-packed full of action, but it also looked to be a little empty in terms of storytelling. However, this is not even close to the the truth. While Day of Reckoning may not have the strongest story, it is a wonderfully intriguing experiment in the absence of exposition, but not in a negligent way. The director, Hyams, dares us to experience life as John (Adkins) does waking up from his coma. We are told next to nothing, except for some pedantic explanations at the end of the film, instead we are John’s companions as he enters the waking nightmare that is his new life. This leads to a stifling atmosphere of confusion, mystery and fear, but oddly enough the movie is never frustrating. Instead it almost feels like our duty to accompany John on his seemingly suicidal quest for revenge – and man is it ever bloody.

Aside from the unique overall feel to Day of Reckoning the biggest highlights are the action and the violence. The fight choreography is absolutely magnificent and if two particular scenes, one in a sporting goods store and the other in a set of tunnels, doesn’t leave you breathless then I’m afraid nothing will. The violence is also so incredibly unforgiving and brutal that the only movie of recent memory that comes even close to matching it is The Raid. Finally, while Van Damme and Lundgren have limited screen time, Adkins does a good job of carrying the movie. While he didn’t do all of his own stunts, he was certainly heavily involved in the action sequences and performed like a pro. It was shocking to hear that he filmed the entire movie with a torn ACL in his leg, an injury that will make sport fans cringe.

Shocking, brutal, and a mind altering drug of it’s own, Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning may have been my biggest surprise at Toronto After Dark. A first rate action movie with more to offer than pretty explosions and a hail of bullets.

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