Monday, August 31, 2015

Japan Society Monthly Classic: Carmen Comes Home

It will be a clash of small town and big city values—and boy, will the small town enjoy it. The prodigal daughter once known as Kin Aoyama apparently found fame and fortune dancing in Tokyo under the name Lily Carmen. She is an artiste, but her art involves G-strings. That does not mean she and her comrade Maya Akemi can’t be scrupulously serious about their dance. They are indomitably upbeat, but their visit might be more than her staid father can handle in Keisuke Kinoshita’s big screen musical Carmen Comes Home (trailers here), the very first Japanese color feature, which screens this Friday at the Japan Society, as part of their newly re-launched Monthly Classics series.

Even if Carmen/Aoyama has not amassed a fortune per se, she has made enough of a go of it to periodically send money and gifts home to her family. Her loyal sister Yuki is in awe of her, but old man Shoichi Aoyama instinctively distrusts the modern western influences she has no doubt absorbed. However, thanks to the intercession of the school principal, an ardent advocate for Japanese culture, he reluctantly consents to her visit. Nobody could miss Lily Carmen when she arrives. She is the one wearing the bright red dress. Clearly, Kinoshita was going to get his color film’s worth from the wardrobe and spectacular mountain scenery.

Naturally, Carmen and Akemi attract all kinds of attention in town, including the leering local mogul. Yet, the two women are more drawn to more plebeian townsmen, like the young school teacher Akemi impulsively falls for. Similarly, Carmen admits she still carries a torch for the now married Haruo Taguchi, who was blinded during the war. As the composer of dirge like odes to his small town, Taguchi is more in line with the Principal’s idea of a real Japanese artist. Unfortunately, Carmen and Akemi’s va-va-voom will inadvertently disrupt Haruo’s grand premiere performance, causing no end of angst.

Hideko Takamine was one the greatest screen actresses in the history of cinema, but she is best known for achingly tragic films like Mikio Naruse’s When a Woman Ascends the Stairs and Yearning, as well as Kobayshi’s The Human Condition, so it is nice to see her get the chance to kick up her heels a little. She is utterly charming as the bizarrely naïve Lily Carmen. Yet, underneath the goofy joy, she gives the subtlest hints of sadness. Nobody else could have pulled that off.

In a way, Carmen Comes Home is like a cross between Oklahoma and Gypsy, with all their slow or maudlin parts discarded. Still, it is clear Carmen and Akemi can never really go home again. The men will only see them as sex objects and the women will fear them as rivals. Despite their pluck and verve, it is ultimately quite a bittersweet film, but that is what makes it so distinctive, along with Takamine’s endearing performance. Recommended for fans of Takamine and movie musicals, the freshly restored Carmen Comes Home screens this Friday (9/4) and look for Go Takamine’s Paradise View in early October (10/2), as part of the Japan Society’s Monthly Classics series.

Rififi: the Grand-Père of Heist Movies Returns

Many think writer Auguste Le Breton joined the French Resistance out of opposition to Vichy’s gambling prohibition. He would survive to become a French Elmore Leonard, known for his gritty action and affinity for slang. As it happened, his source novel was too coarse for genteel American blacklisted director Jules Dassin, who joined the Communist Party in the mid-1930s, right around the time of the Great Purge and the Moscow Show Trials. In order to lose the parts that offended his sensibilities, Dassin expanded the heist scene into half an hour’s worth of wordless action. At one time banned by several countries for its purported criminal instructional value, Dassin’s French noir classic Rififi (trailer here) returns to New York for a special one-week engagement starting this Wednesday at Film Forum.

Tony “le Stéphanois” (from Saint-Étienne) is decidedly the worse for wear after his recent prison stint. He willingly took the rap for Jo “le Suédois (the Swede), whose son Tonio (Tony’s godson and namesake) he dotes on, but his health and finances are in sad shape. To make matters worse, his ex-lover Mado took up with his nemesis, gangster-night club owner Pierre Grutter. After explaining his disappointment to her, Tony will commence planning his next and potentially last big score.

Jo and their mutual crony Mario Ferrati originally conceived of the jewelry store job as a simple smash-and-grab, but Tony wants the prime cuts in the safe. Recruiting Italian safecracker César “le Milanais,” they methodically case the joint and craft their elaborate timetable. The actual half-hour of heist operations is indeed a masterwork of noir filmmaking. However, it somewhat unbalances the film. While there is plenty of good hardboiled stuff in the third act, as the Grutter gang schemes to appropriate the hot ice for themselves, but it necessarily lacks the same hushed intensity of the celebrated centerpiece.

Regardless, Rififi (which very roughly translates as “trouble”) has long been recognized as a noir classic for good reason. Like Le Breton’s books, it has a street smart persona and a street level perspective. It captures the workaday milieu of postwar Paris, especially during the odd hours of the day and night when respectable folks were off the streets. Jean Servais also creates the template for the older, world-weary noir mentor, dealing with the business end of his bad karma. He slow burns like a crock pot with dangerously faulty wiring. Just looking at his lined face makes you want to pop an Advil.

Carl Möhner (probably next most often remembered for She Devils of the SS, which is pretty much what it sounds like), is rather under-heralded for his steady, proletarian work as Jo. However, Dassin himself (billed as Perlo Vita) indulges in a bit of broad ethnic stereotyping, for supposed comic effect, as César.

On heist movie listicals with any sense of history, Rififi inevitably ranks somewhere around number one. It is a film any noir fan has to see to consider themselves literate in the genre. Very highly recommended, Rififi opens this Wednesday (9/2) at Film Forum.

Sunday, August 30, 2015

Creep: a Blumhouse/Duplass Joint

Patrick Brice does not want you to spend the night at any stranger’s place. Notable only for being exceptionally forgettable, his second film, The Overnight, chronicles the mounting awkwardness a yuppie dinner party turned sleep-over, at least as far as anyone can recall. For some reason, it has played just about every major festival, even though the only memorable thing about it are the jokes about the guy who isn’t Jason Schwartzman having tiny junk. However, you will definitely remember Mark Duplass is the title character of Brice’s first feature, Creep (trailer here), a Blumhouse BH Tilt production, which opens its belated premiere theatrical engagement this Wednesday at Videology in Brooklyn.

Like Safety Not Guaranteed, this Duplass film also starts with a classified ad. It seems a well-to-do dude requests the services of a videographer to film him over the course of a day. It pays $1,000, but “discretion is appreciated.” You don’t say. When Aaron arrives for the gig, Josef tells him he is dying from a brain tumor, but wants document how he really was for his unborn son. His inspiration is the Michael Keaton movie My Life. That alone should raise Aaron’s suspicions.

In fact, it does not take long for the video freelancer to conclude there is something very off about his client. Josef’s family vacation home is also unsettlingly remote. Nevertheless, one grand is one grand, so he sticks with it. At first, Josef just seems annoyingly eccentric, but he eventually tells Aaron some pretty whacked out stuff. Clearly, Josef is playing some sort of game with him. Unfortunately, viewers will have a better idea than Aaron where it is all headed, because they know they came to a horror movie.

Yes, this is a found footage film, but given the set-up, it makes sense to have all the bedlam documented on Aaron’s camera. Frankly, there is nothing radically original here, but it is seamlessly cut together by editor Christopher Donlon (fortunately, narrative developments allow for and even require a bit of snipping together). As a result, it is a tight film dominated by Duplass’s performance. He is massively creepy, so to speak, always just peaking over the precipice of camp, without ever plunging over the top.

Brice and producer-horror mogul Jason Blum owe a major debt of thanks to the owner of that mountain home. Its staircase is likely to become iconic among genre fans. Of course, Blumhouse does plenty of this sort of thing. They did not invent the found footage sub-genre, but one could argue they took it to the next level, nearly cornering the low budget studio market in the process. This is one of the better examples, powered by Duplass’s unabashed scenery chewing. Recommended for fans of Duplass and Blumhouse, Creep opens this Wednesday (9/2) at Videology (but it is also already available on VOD and even streams on Netflix).

Saturday, August 29, 2015

MWFF ’15: Ernie Biscuit (short)

Cinema has not been kind to taxidermists. Norman Bates is the classic example amongst a small sampling. Ernée Bisquit is nothing like him, except for his extreme shyness and awkwardness around women. Spurred by an unlikely catalyst, the sad sack Bisquit takes drastic steps to rejuvenate his drab existence in Adam Elliot’s Claymation short, Ernie Biscuit, which screens during the 2015 Montreal World Film Festival.

Bisquit was always a bit of an outsider, but it was a cruel childhood prank that rendered him deaf. He inherited his family’s Parisian taxidermy shop, but he never had much passion for it. The last time he felt a deep personal connection was with a young Jewish girl, whose family lived in the flat next to Bisquits’ in early 1940s. Tragically, they were never seen again after the infamous round-up, but Bisquit still cares for her pet duck. Realizing taxidermy is out of fashion in 1966, Bisquit impulsively sells his shop intending to relocate to Venice, where he and his first and only love dreamed of visiting.

However, Bisquit and his duck get on the wrong plane, ending up in Australia instead. Complications and misadventures necessarily ensue, including the Australianization of his name. Yet, Bisquit also manages to meet a flesh-and-blood woman. She has plenty of issues too, but that might just make it perfect, provided he survives the rest of the chaos engulfing him.

If Biscuit qualifies for Academy Award consideration, it should be the odds on favorite. Elliot already has one Oscar for his short Harvey Krumpet as well as considerable name recognition amongst the animation community for his feature film Mary and Max. His style is instantly recognizable, particularly his sensitively grotesque characters. Clearly, Elliot has a keen empathy for underdogs like Bisquit, but there is still a sense of playfulness throughout Biscuit. Somehow, the film manages to be consistently funny and genuinely touching, without ever getting shticky or saccharine, which is a neat trick really.

The distinctive music heard over the closing credits is Simon Park’s orchestration of the Van Der Valk theme, “Eye Level.” Evidently, music written for Dutch canals works just as well for those preoccupied with Venice. Regardless, it is another eccentric element that turns out perfectly. Occasionally somewhat macabre, but ultimately quite beautiful, Ernie Biscuit is very highly recommended when it screens this Tuesday (9/1) and the following Monday (9/7), as part of this year’s Montreal World Film Festival.

Friday, August 28, 2015

MWFF ’15: North by Northeast

Cai Bing is sort of like a Chinese Miss Marple, but in addition her fellow villagers’ business, she also knows a heck of a lot about breeding hogs. It was not always so. The former university professor was sent down to the provincial breeding station during the height of the Cultural Revolution, but she adapted to her new environment remarkably well. She has just been rehabilitated, but before she returns to her old life she will help the local bumbling police captain hunt down a mysterious sex offender in Zhang Bingjian’s North by Northeast (trailer here), which screens during the 2015 Montreal World Film Festival.

By applying Chinese medicine to pig husbandry, Cai produced some big hogs. She also found more personal contentment than she expected, even “adopting” Xiao Cui as her granddaughter. Frankly, she has made the best of the Cultural Revolution, all things considered, but she still does not suffer fools gladly. According to her withering judgement, Li Zhanshan, the village constable, is one such idiot.

Li and his tiny militia have been chasing the serial rapist known as “Liumang,” a loaded colloquial term meaning thug, pervert, or something in between. Unfortunately, the case gets personal for Cai when Xiao is raped by Liumang. Using Chinese medicine and deductive reasoning, Cai will try to guide “Footprints” Li’s investigation in more promising directions. Yet despite her wisdom, the mystery will outlast the waning Cultural Revolution.

While Northeast boldly invokes Hitchcock right there in its title, it is a bizarre tonal mishmash. It is probably safe to say you will never find a sunnier, more upbeat film about sex fiends and the Cultural Revolution. Seriously, do not try this at home, but somehow Zhang pulls it off. Of course, it all starts with Li Bin’s wildly charismatic and wonderfully acerbic performance as Cai. Acidic on the outside, but sweet and sentimental deep down, like Marianas Trench deep, she raises the cozy sleuth bar well above anything Margaret Rutherford or Angela Lansbury ever did. If you were ever a victim of a crime, you would want her giving the cops what-for on your behalf.

It is a tall order hanging with Li, but Ban Zan grows into the job, playing “Footprints” Li with far less shtick than his character’s pear shape and general level of incompetence would suggest. In fact, he gets as serious as the plague during the masterfully dark third act. He is indeed a major reason why this film will surprise you.

Where Xin Yukun’s A Coffin in the Mountain feels like a twisty top tier Coen Brothers’ movie as exemplified by a Fargo, Northeast is more closely akin to their bold but uneven mid-level films, like Hudsucker or O Brother. Still, that means there is more to recommend it than ninety-five percent of films can lay claim to. Li Bin is unquestionably the X-factor. Her turn as Cai is a thing of beauty and a force of nature. Recommended for her vinegary power and Zhang’s considerable style, North by Northeast screens this coming Tuesday (9/1) and Friday (9/4), as part of this year’s Montreal World Film Festival.

Thursday, August 27, 2015

The Storm Makers, On POV, Presented by Rithy Panh

Wars have been fought to end slavery, but the cruel trade in humanity still flourishes internationally. Unfortunately, it is hard to take macro military action when neighbors and family members are the ones selling future generations into slavery. Guillaume Suon and co-writer-assistant director Phally Ngoeum examine human trafficking in Cambodia from three uncomfortably intimate perspectives in The Storm Makers (promo here), produced and “presented” by Academy Award nominee Rithy Panh, which premieres this coming Monday on PBS as part of the current season of POV.

The titular Storm Makers are the human traffickers who barnstorm through provincial villages, luring the young and unemployed into bondage with false promises. Their victims are predominantly but not exclusively women, much like Aya. It was her own mother, perhaps half-knowingly, who sold her into slavery. However, like a flesh-and-blood ghost, Aya returned with stories of harrowing sexual abuse and a toddler, who was the product of repeated rapes. It has not been a happy homecoming for either woman.

In some ways, Aya’s mother is not so different from Ming Dy, who works as a “tout” recruiting girls from neighboring villages. She also sold her own daughter, which has irrevocably poisoned her relationship with her outraged Buddhist husband. Suon and Ngoeum follow the food chain up to Pou Houy, an unrepentant Storm Maker and massively hypocritical Evangelical Christian. His “employment agency” is a transparent front for trafficking, yet he has a steady stream of walk-in victim-clients. Perhaps the most shocking aspect of Suon’s film is just how many people knowingly take a very bad gamble, simply because they see no other options.

Storm Makers is a quietly observational talking-head-free-zone, but it captures enough evil in action to make anyone’s blood run cold—provided they are of good conscience. Suon make it agonizingly clear just how corrosive a problem trafficking is in the long term, even for a relatively “lucky” survivor like Aya. In fact, the damage wrought to her psyche will knock you back on your heels.

Frankly, it is a little baffling how a film produced and blessed by Panh (who helmed the Oscar nominated The Missing Picture) never secured a high profile festival screening in New York, even though it snagged awards at Full Frame and Busan. Regardless, hats off to POV for programming it. Yet, screenings and broadcasts of Storm Makers are even more desperately needed in Cambodia, as well as Thailand, Malaysia, and Taiwan, where so many trafficked Cambodians end up.

This might sound wildly eccentric, but perhaps the Cambodian government’s time would be better spent cracking down on traffickers like Pou Houy than censoring and campaigning against soon-to-be-forgotten Hollywood movies like No Escape. Of course, there is no way the illicit trafficking trade could thrive for so long, without plenty of high level looking the other way. While Storm Makers can be unsettling to watch, it holds viewers riveted in a vice-like grip. Guaranteed to inspire outrage and diminish your appraisal of human nature (so therefore highly recommended), The Storm Makers debuts on POV this coming Monday (8/31).

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

When Animals Dream: A Danish Werewolf Coming of Age Story

Female shape-shifters in the movies tend to be highly sexualized, like Nastassia Kinski in the Cat People remake or Sybil Danning in Howling II. In contrast, Marie is pretty repressed, but she is a product of her coastal Danish environment. You could easily imagine John Calvin preaching in their wooden church. However, she will undergo some dramatic changes in Jonas Alexander Arnby’s When Animals Dream (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

As the film opens, Marie is rather concerned about a persistent rash and strange tufts of hair growing in places where they shouldn’t be. Her elevated stress level will not help. She has just started work at a fish cannery, which is even less glamorous than it sounds. She makes fast-friends with a couple of the cool kids, including Daniel, who might even be potential boyfriend material. Unfortunately, she also quickly finds herself on the wrong end of the sexual harassing “pranks” of the sociopathic Esben and his cronies.

Frankly, the entire village is rather standoffish towards Marie. They fear she will turn out to be her mother’s daughter. For some time, her father has kept her formerly wild and beautiful mother zoned out on tranquilizers and anti-psychotic medication. Of course, when her werewolf nature starts to assert itself, the village doctor inevitably prescribes the same treatment for her, with her father’s acquiescence.

WAD is a wildly moody, thoroughly hypnotic, revisionist feminist take on lycanthropy. There will be plenty of painful deaths down the stretch, but it is more a riff on the mad-woman-in-the-attic trope than an exercise in gore. Nevertheless, when the film gets down to snarling business, it is unabashedly cathartic.

Lycanthropy as feminist survival strategy is all very good, but it is Sonia Suhl who really sells it as Marie. Beautiful, but in a freakishly ethereal way, Suhl’s very presence is unquantifiabaly disconcerting. Yet, she still gives an impressively real performance in her feature debut, viscerally expressing all of Marie’s social awkwardness and pent-up resentment. It is her movie, but the other Mikkelsen (Mads’ brother Lars) adds further layers of anguished ambiguity as Marie’s father, Thor, who will slowly strangle his loved ones to ostensibly save them from the potential mob with pitchforks that constitute their village.

Hollywood could conceivably remake WAD, but it has a distinctly dark, Scandinavian soul. There is a Nordic chill in its bones. Northern Jutland native Suhl also could not possibly be anymore Danish. As horror films go, WAD is definitely a slow build, but it is also a steady build that pays off handsomely. Recommended for adventurous werewolf fans, When Animals Dream opens this Friday (8/28) in New York, at the Village East.

No Escape: the Reign of Terror Commences

It looks a lot like Thailand, but the use of Khmer lettering somewhat upset Cambodia. The anarchy and mass killings engulfing the fictional Southeast Asian city also rather parallel the brutal fall of Phnom Penh, which could be the real reason for the Cambodian government’s censorship decision. On the other hand, the head of state’s official garb bears a vague resemblance to that of the King of Thailand. Unfortunately, we will not have time to learn if he is also a jazz lover and amateur musician, like Bhumibol Adulyadej. The dear leader is about to become the dearly departed, unleashing murderous bedlam in John Erick Dowdle’s No Escape (trailer here), which opens today in wide release.

After his tech start-up crashed and burned, Jack Dwyer accepted a middle-manager position with Talbott, an international engineering firm. He is in the process of relocating his family to a country that is one hundred percent not Cambodia but happens to border Vietnam, where he will help construct a water plant. For this he should die, according to the ninety-nine percenters that are about to launch an insurrection. It is nothing personal, just ideology.

As the terrorists work their way through the Dwyer’s hotel, summarily executing guests room-by-room, Dwyer scrambles to lead with wife Annie and two daughters to safety. He will get some heads-up assistance from Hammond, a suspiciously cool-under fire Brit. However, things start to get truly desperate when the leftist guerillas call in the helicopter gunships to strafe their presumed safe haven on the roof.

No Escape would be a nifty thriller (sort of like Bayona’s The Impossible, if the tsunami came packing an AK-47), had it not felt compelled to periodically bring the action to a screeching stop in order to blame everything on western imperialism, or is it globalism in this case? In any event, we are responsible, please chastise us. That would be Pierce Brosnan’s job as Hammond, who assures Dwyer the men who just murdered scores of innocent bellhops and office workers are only trying to protect their families, like you Jack. Of course, such moral equivalency is simply farcical.

Believe it or not, Owen Wilson shows some real action cred as the super-motivated everyman. Brosnan also takes visible delight in Hammond’s dissipated tendencies, providing some much needed shtick-free comic relief. Sahajak Boonthanakit also compliments him rather nicely as “Kenny Rogers,” Hammond’s country music loving local crony. However, the film suffers from the lack of a focal villain—a Robespierre to incite the mob.

Despite the shortcomings of the script co-written with his brother Drew, Dowdle certainly has a knack for filming riot scenes. In fact, the first act is quite impressively staged managed, as we see the Dwyers cut off from contact with the outside world, reacting to dangerously incomplete information. At times, No Escape is a very scary film, but it is frequently undermined by its inclination to lecture. As a result, it falls short of the visceral intensity and unrepentant black humor of the Eli Roth-produced Aftershock. No Escape very nearly could have been great, but instead it is marked by stop-and-start inconsistencies. Still, Brosnan fans will be happy to hear No Escape represents a return to form for the Bond alumnus after a half dozen or so B-level movies, when it opens nationwide today (8/26), including at the Regal Union Square in New York, but not in undemocratic Cambodia.

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

MWFF ’15: Kimi Kabuki (short)

Fandom can be creepy. Just ask Madeline. She was rather surprised to learn her husband is quite the admirer of a well-known porn performer. In fact, he will be attending an adult entertainment convention to meet her. Madeline will follow him there. Her intentions are unclear, but there is a good chance a scene will ensue in Yoko Okumura’s short film Kimi Kabuki (trailer here), which screens during this year’s Montreal World Film Festival.

Yes, Madeline found the stash on Robert’s computer and has been absolutely beside herself ever since. When she makes her way onto the exhibit floor, the sheer volume of the assembled naughtiness nearly overwhelms her. However, as she mills about looking for her about-to-be-busted husband, she kind of-sort of starts to enjoy herself. Unfortunately, there will still be the anticipated scene, but at least she gets to meet his favorite porn actress, Kimi Kabuki, who turns out to be way cooler than she expects.

It is hard to judge whether Okumura’s film is pro or con when it comes to pornography, but it is safe to say it advocates more open communication. In fact, the climatic dialogue shared by Madeline and her unattainable rival stands out so distinctively, because it cuts both ways. Arguably, the film is forgiving of human weakness and foibles, but it is not a push-over.

Given the context of the film, it might sound a little awkward to say we’re big fans of Jo Mei, so let’s argue she deserves wider recognition for her work in J.P. Chan’s excellent short films (such as Digital Antiquities and Beijing Haze) as well as his feature, A Picture of You. In fact, she might be one of the best and most prolific screen thesps appearing in serious short form dramas on a regular basis. You could program a super retrospective of her short film appearances, most definitely including Kabuki.

Once again, Mei delivers a tough, smart performance that contrasts nicely with Teresa Hegji’s naïve Madeline. While it is a more emotional role, Hegji keeps it grounded, avoiding cheap histrionics or any sort of phoniness.

Like many AFI supported films, Kabuki was produced by a lot of talent on both sides of the camera (see the recent Fandor spotlight for more examples). One can only imagine the coordination required to recreate the look and vibe of the adult trade show. (All you Roberts out there should take note, industry professional Alexa Aimes plays herself.) It is a perceptively written film, brought to life by an equally sensitive cast. Recommended for mature audiences (in the best sense of the term), Kimi Kabuki screens this Saturday (8/29) as part of the 2015 Montreal World Film Festival.

Memories of the Sword: Love, Vengeance, Tragedy. It’s All Good in the Goryeo Kingdom

Poong-chun, Deok-ki, and their lady comrade-in-arms Seol-rung were once dreaded warriors leading a rebellion against Goryeo Era tyranny. Unfortunately, betrayal cut short their uprising, along with the principled Poong-chun’s life. However, it was not jealousy that tore the trio asunder. It was more of a case of miscommunication. Of course, the tragedy compounds mightily when Poong-chun’s daughter seeks to avenge her murdered parents in Park Heung-sik’s Memories of the Sword (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

For years, Seol-hee has been rigorously trained by Wol-so, a blind tea house proprietor to wreak vengeance on her enemies. Wol-so has kept many secrets, including her real identity: Seol-rung. She is not the only one living under a new name. Deok-ki is now Yoo-baek, a general so competent, he is naturally despised by his colleagues in court. The feeling is mutual.

When Yoo-baek observes the masked Seol-hee crash his martial arts contest, he immediately recognizes Seol-rung’s style. When news of her escapade reaches Seol-rung, it forces her hand. Revealing herself and Yoo-baek as Seol-hee’s familial enemies, Seol-rung casts out the girl with only her father’s sword. It is sort of a case of tough love, but it confuses Seol-hee no end. Nevertheless, it is suddenly healthy for her to be far away from Seol-rung.

At a youthful twenty-four (looking more like twelve), Kim Go-eun (who exploded onto the scene a mere three years ago in Eungyo (a Muse)) notches her first action lead here as Seol-hee. In fact, she is rather perfect for the role, looking young and vulnerable, but flashing some convincing moves. Yet, Jeon De-yeon truly delivers the romantic angst and a fair number of beatdowns as the very complicated Seol-rung. In contrast, international superstar Lee Byung-hun seems to be somewhat distracted as Deok-ki/Yoo-baek, as if he were waiting for his next G.I. Joe script to arrive, but Lee Kyoung-young makes an unusually hardnosed Yoda as the trio’s powerful and reclusive teacher.

There are some spectacular martial arts sequences in Memories, as well as some Crouching Tiger-esque scenes of skipping across rooftops and treetops that defy logic and gravity, but still look quite cinematic. Indeed, Park elevates the film with a good deal of visual poetry. Genre fans will also appreciate how he steadily deepens the impassioned tragedy with each new revelation. Recommended for action fans who appreciate classy production values and a bittersweet payoff, Memories of the Sword opens this Friday (8/28) in New York, at the AMC Empire.

Monday, August 24, 2015

My Voice, My Life: Dreaming of Fame and a Future in HK

If you expected class distinctions would vanish in Hong Kong after re-integrating with the Mainland, reality has been profoundly disappointing. For many, the only significant change is the undemocratic governance mandated by Beijing. Last fall, thousands of HK students protested for the right to hold legitimate elections. Simultaneously, a group of disadvantaged HK high school students discovered potential they never knew they had when they were selected to stage a professional musical theater production. Six of their fellow students were also recruited to document their behind-the-scenes drama. None of them were activists, but their efforts to assert control over lives and futures takes on unintended symbolic implications in Oscar-winner Ruby Yang’s My Voice, My Life (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

In Hong Kong, there is a rigid hierarchy among secondary schools. Underperforming students at the last chance “Band 3” schools are often looked down upon by their peers and their elders, but their employment prospects are still better than those facing graduates of the Ebenezer School for the Visually Impaired. Of course, the latter students recruited for the awkwardly named L plus H Creations Foundation’s production of The Awakening (featuring a conspicuously Les Mis-ish sounding finale) are by far the most reliable during the early days of rehearsal. There will be a pretty steep learning curve for the other kids, both musically and personally.

Frankly, it was not always clear whether the production would really come together. In Coby Wang, they had a lead with all kinds of natural talent, but her acute lack of confidence prevents her from realizing her diva potential. More problematic are the troublemakers who undermine discipline and unity with their antics. Yet, as the rehearsals progress, the hardest cases start to realize their fellow students are relying on them to get it together.

Yang (who was last nominated for the short David-and-Goliath doc, The Warriors of Qiugang) and editor Man Chung Ma are extraordinarily dexterous juggling the various students’ and their backstories. Viewers really get a fully developed sense of at least eight or nine of the cast-members, while also meeting an assortment of parents, teachers, and theater professionals, which is quite an impressive feat of screen-time management in a ninety-one minute film.

None of these kids are bad per se. Some have just been living down to low expectations. Fortunately, several are extremely charismatic, while nobody in their right mind could root against the earnest Ebenezer students. Clearly, Andy Lau agreed. The HK superstar and former bad kid saw something of himself in the Awakening cast-members, so he hit the Hong Kong publicity circuit on the film’s behalf, making it an unexpected box-office success.

Of course, their story does not end here, but at least Voice gives us reason to suspect there is much more to come from its subjects (especially since they are now so well known to Lau). Frankly, they sort of cry out for the Seven Up treatment. Regardless, they deserve a chance to pursue a higher education and real career opportunities. Likewise, they ought to be able to vote for the politicians of their choice. At least Yang’s documentary should help with the former. Recommended for idealistic musical theater fans, My Voice, My Life opens this Friday (8/28) in New York, at the Cinema Village.

Queen of Earth: the Horror of Depression

Depression runs in Catherine’s family. They are also one of the leading causes of depression in others. Ostensibly, she has come to her friend’s summer home to relax and get away from her troubles, but she will really just do her best to make everyone around her miserable in Alex Ross Perry’s acutely unsettling but undeniably riveting Queen of Earth  (trailer here), which opens this Wednesday in New York at the IFC Center.

Catherine has just been dumped by James, the boyfriend with whom she was so lovey-dovey during last year’s trip to Virginia’s family vacation home. The timing is particularly bad, coming soon after the death of her father—a tragedy made worse by the unspoken circumstances involved. Back then, Virginia did not like James at all, but she does not seem to be judging him too harshly now.

As Catherine settles in, as best she can, Perry flashes back to her happier, co-dependent days with James. Virginia was not expecting her to bring him the summer prior, so she made no secret of her resentment. Catherine also immediately clashed with Rich, Virginia’s neighbor and potential love interest, who is decidedly not intimidated by artsy, pseudo-intellectuals like Catherine. A year later, James is out of the picture, but Rich is still there, expecting to get lucky with Virginia and rubbing her the wrong way.

Vexed by memories and annoyed by Rich and Virginia’s insensitivity, Catherine slides deeper into depression, perhaps losing her handle on reality in the process. If you ever doubted depression is absolutely a genuine health risk, just spend some time with Queen. Many of the dangers are readily apparent, while some are eerily implied. Yet, despite Catherine’s massively unreliable POV, it is definitely fair to say profoundly bad things are going on in that summer house.

You can argue how best to classify Queen, but it bears obvious comparison to Polanski’s Compulsion and Elisabeth Moss’s lead performance will completely chill you to your bones, so some might call it horror. However, it also has the uncomfortable intimacy of Cassavetes and even, Heaven help us, Ingmar Berman. Moss’s work is bold and disturbing, but tightly controlled and carefully calibrated. There absolutely no foaming at the mouth or similar such Meryl Streep shtick on display here. The film is also quite an ensemble piece, featuring first-rate supporting turns from Catherine Waterston and Patrick Fugit as Virginia and her friend with benefits. Frankly, nobody is remotely “likable” in this film, but you cannot tear your eyes away from them.

Cinematographer Sean Price Williams has amassed plenty of credits (including the terrific documentary Beetle Queen Conquers Tokyo and the highly entertaining Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead), but Queen might be the film that gets him award recognition. He gives Queen an undefinably retro look, amplifying the dramatic power with his long-held close-ups. It is a distinctive film in all senses that is likely to be regularly studied and re-examined for years to come. Recommended for admirers of psychological dramas (with the emphasis on psycho), Queen of Earth opens this Wednesday (8/26) at the IFC Center.

Sunday, August 23, 2015

Macabro ’15: Chemical Wedding

While the fact is strenuously ignored by his subsequent devotees, L. Ron Hubbard was once an ardent follower of the notorious British occultist Aleister Crowley. That was when Hubbard and Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) founder Jack Parsons were traveling in the same Pagan circles, so to speak. The relationship between the three men is indeed referenced in Iron Maiden lead vocalist Bruce Dickinson’s screenwriting debut, but it is the connection to Parsons that will have greater significance in Julian Doyle’s way-better-than-reported Chemical Wedding (a.k.a. Crowley, trailer here), which screens as part of a retrospective tribute (or whatever) to Crowley at the 2015 Macabro, the International Horror Film Festival in Mexico City.

In 1947, Crowley’s earnest young understudy Symonds was present at his death, but it will not be the last time he sees the dark magus. Flashing forward to 2000, Symonds has forsworn the occult as a respected Cambridge professor. As the Florida recount rages, Dr. Joshua Mathers arrives from Cal Tech to test his Virtual Reality simulator using the university’s powerful super-computer. Unbeknownst to Mathers, his Cambridge colleague Victor Neuman is also a budding occultist, who performs an off-the-books experiment, programming Crowley’s information into the computer while twittish classics professor Oliver Haddo is wearing the VR suit.

As you might expect, Haddo is a different man when he steps out of the Z93. His stutter is gone, replaced by an encyclopedic knowledge of the Bible and a voracious sexual appetite. He is indeed Crowley and he has big plans. Symonds understands how dangerous it will be if he completes the resurrection process, so he advises Mathers and Cambridge student journalist Lia Robinson as best he can. Unfortunately, her red hair will attract Crowley’s attention, in a very bad way.

Frankly, the prospect of revered British character actor and Orson Welles biographer Simon Callow going all in as Crowley is reason enough to see Chemical, but Doyle & Dickinson also wrote a considerably inventive narrative around him. Admittedly, the logic and believability of their pseudo-science is hit-or-miss. However, ambition of its scope is rather impressive. Chemical stakes out the territory where metaphysics and theoretical physics intersect—and it is quite a bloody crossroads.

Perhaps realizing he will not have many more opportunities to exercise his Hammer Horror muscles, Callow makes the most of Chemical, luxuriating in Haddo’s agonizing stutter and feasting on scenery as the reincarnated Crowley. Similarly, John Shrapnel is aptly malevolent and larger than life as the 1947 Crowley. Although the film’s aesthetics are stacked against their conventionally unassuming characters, Kal Weber and Lucy Cudden still manage to show some presence and energy as Mathers and Robinson, respectively. However, it is Paul McDowell who really anchors the film and sells its third act revelations as the older and wiser Symonds.

For a demonic horror film co-scripted by a heavy metal rock star, Chemical Wedding is surprisingly tweedy and thoroughly British. It is indeed a throwback to old school Hammer-Amicus films, but one informed by post-Uncertainty quantum mechanics. Pretty cool really (and also available on DVD), Chemical Wedding screens this Thursday (8/27), along with the wonderfully eccentric Karloff-Lugosi vehicle The Black Cat, as part of the Crowley-inspired programming at this year’s Macabro.

Saturday, August 22, 2015

DC K-Cinema: 71 Into the Fire

It was relatively early in the Korean War, but it was very nearly the Republic of Korea’s last stand. A ragtag contingent of seventy-one student-soldiers were assigned to hold off the dreaded 766th Regiment at the P’ohang-dong Girl’s Middle School while the beleaguered allies dug in at the Naktong River. They faced Alamo-like prospects, but they were not about to give up without a fight. Brace yourself for the carnage and heroism of John H. Lee’s 71: Into the Fire (trailer here), which screens next week as part of the Washington, DC Korean Cultural Center’s monthly K-Cinema series.

Oh Jang-beom saw plenty of action before the South Korea Army was forced to retreat, but he never fired off a shot. Still, Captain Kang Suk-dae appreciates the implications of his experience, so he places Oh in charge of the newly formed student-soldier unit. They are to hold the P’ohang Middle School against the expected Communist onslaught, to prevent the Naktong forces from getting outflanked. To complicate the situation, surly delinquent Gu Kap-jo challenges his authority at every turn. The green recruits under his uncertain command simply have no idea what war entails.

Making matters even worse, the ruthless Major Park Moo-rang is leading the drive towards the middle school. Even though he is a true believer, he also happens to be the North’s most capable battlefield commander. Yet, he still finds his orders second-guessed by the regiment’s political officer.

71 opens and closes with massive spectacles of warfighting conflagrations, fitting in several tense skirmishes in between. This is the sort of film that can give you a concussion. Lee is clearly not fooling around with a lot of phony melodrama. While Park Jin-hee (the court nurse in Shadows in the Palace) briefly appears as a compassionate military RN, most of the film revolves around shooting at the enemy. War is definitely Hell in 71, but the film’s sympathies are clearly with the ROK. Despite Park’s professed desire for unification, his ideals are constantly undermined by cruel and craven political officer.

While many of the seventy-one student-soldiers blend together, K-pop rapper T.O.P. (a.k.a. Choi Seung-hyun) manages to project a slow-burning intensity above all the explosive bedlam surrounding him. It is a dynamite screen debut that deservedly racked up a number of Korean popular choice film awards. Frankly, he barely looks like he is out of middle school himself, which lends the film further authenticity and poignancy. 71 was definitely his coming out party, albeit one produced with the cooperation of the Korean Defense Ministry and released to coincide with the 60th anniversary of the start of the Korean War. Nevertheless, Cha Seung-won’s Park vividly personifies condescending arrogance, while as Kang, Kim Seung-woo anchors the film with steely gravitas.

Without a doubt, 71 is one of the best produced war films of recent vintage, ranking just below My Way and considerably above Fury and The Front Line. It is viscerally immersive, but T.O.P., Kim, and even Park Jin-hee maintain a strong human connection. Recommended for mainstream war movie audiences, 71: Into the Fire screens this coming Thursday (8/27) at the Korean Cultural Center in DC.

Friday, August 21, 2015

Macabro ’15: Cord

It turns out the looming Armageddon is considerably more miserable than Mad Max let on. Sure, food, potable water, and fuel are all scarce, as are dubious luxuries like hope and culture. To make matters far worse, nobody is getting any. Due to the nature of the doomsday pathogen, survivors have a deep-seated cootie phobia. Instead of anything physical, they seek the services of tinkerers who hook them up for some electronically enhanced auto-eroticism. Yet, despite their better judgement, a dealer and his latest customer take matters offline in Pablo González’s English language production, Cord (trailer here), which screens as part of the science fiction and fantasy sidebar at the 2015 Macabro, the International Horror Film Festival in Mexico City.

For enough canned goods, Czuperski will wire you up to a contraption that looks like no fun at all. However, his latest breakthrough is the real deal. It is so potent, he is convinced only women will be able to handle it. Tania the sex addict is willing to volunteer. It turns out to be as good as advertised. In fact, it is so satisfying, she still comes back for more, even after he copped a feel at the moment of truth. Remember, that constitutes a titanic breach of decorum in this dingy, hermetically sealed era. Nevertheless, Tania and Czuperski soon decide combining his implant stimulation with old school physicality produces a heck of a result.

Yes, Cord is basically a post-apocalyptic 9½ Weeks, but there is absolutely nothing sexy about its wired-up bumping and grinding. Seriously, Concerned Women of America should distribute copies in schools, because it will scare even the horniest teens celibate. You feel like a tetanus shot after watching it, which is actually quite a testament to production and set designer Nuria Manzaneda’s gritty, groody low fi creative work.

Even at a mere sixty-five minutes, Cord often repeats itself. Nevertheless, Christian Wewerka’s Czuperski truly commands the screen, while turning the mad scientist stereotype on its head. He is totally flinty and vinegary, yet also strangely vulnerable. As Tania, Laura de Boer is stuck playing a lot of When Harry Met Sally diner scenes. She is more than adequate to the task in that respect, but her character remains comparatively under-developed. Of course, you can hardly blame Czuperski for being attracted to her. If she is not technically the last woman on Earth, she is close enough.

Cord is nearly a two-hander, confined entirely to one set. Perhaps it would have benefited the film if González had opened it up more. While some points are driven home with compulsive thoroughness, there is no denying the power of Wewerka’s performance and the bleakness of González’s vision. It is an interesting film, despite and because of its flaws, but its subject matter and running time will make it quite the programming challenge, so intrigued viewers who happen to be in Mexico City with a little free time on their hands should see while they have the chance. It screens this Sunday (8/23) and Monday (8/24), as part of the Macabro Fantastico section at this year’s Macabro.

Thursday, August 20, 2015

Let’s Hear It for the Boy

Compared to the Mountain Vista Motel, the Bates Motel is quite a going concern. Like Norman Bates, Ted Henley also has mommy issues, but his absentee mother ran-off with a truck driver, abandoning him and his shell of a father long ago. That has not helped his moral-ethical development much. However, there is good reason to suspect the nine-year old is naturally inclined towards sociopathic violence. We will watch as his nature and lack of nurture lead to horrific results in Craig William Macneill’s The Boy (trailer here), which opens tomorrow in New York.

The Bates Motel comparison is inescapable, but frankly, everything about Henley screams future serial killer. Even his name evokes memories of Bundy and Hinckley. As the film opens, Henley’s pa pays him a quarter for each roadkill carcass he cleans off the mountain highway skirting round their usually vacant motel. Henley has devised ways to entice more small varmints to their death, hoping to earn enough money for a bus ticket to visit his disinterested mother. Of course, these killer instincts will steadily escalate over time.

William Colby is first outsider to get caught up in Henley’s schemes. He happens to have the misfortune of barreling into a deer grazing on Henley’s highway chum. With his car totaled, Colby will be staying for a while. Decidedly not the former CIA director, this Colby has a mysterious past of his own, which fascinates Henley for all the wrong reasons.

The Boy is a decidedly slow building thriller, but it really does build, with the tension slowly increasing second, by discernable second. This is only Macneill’s second full feature and his first as the sole helmer, but it is remarkably disciplined. He shows the sort of mastery of unitary mood Poe advocated for short story writers. Macneill never indulges in cheap gore just to placate genre fans, but The Boy is absolutely not a tease. When it gets where it is going, it is pretty darned jarring.

Young Jared Breeze is perfectly cast as Henley. A first blush, he looks like an innocent toe-headed scamp but when you peer into his eyes, you see the psychotic hellion. Unfortunately, the film’s midnight genre credentials mean David Morse will probably receive limited recognition for one of his best film performances as the tragically in-denial and self-loathing Mr. Henley. Rainn Wilson also does some career best work as the erratic Colby.

In fact, there will probably be a bit of an expectations disconnect for The Boy as a former SXSW midnight selection released under Chiller’s theatrical banner. It is an unusually accomplished work from Macneill and his cast that would appeal to fans of art house auteurs, like maybe Refn Winding and Gaspar Noe. Highly recommended for discerning horror and psychological thriller fans, The Boy opens tomorrow (8/21) in New York, at the Cinema Village.

Macabro ’15: Hollow

Nature abhors a vacuum. So do vengeful spirits. It is time for another lesson in physics and metaphysics. This one comes from Vietnam, but the vibe is certainly consistent with the K-horror and J-horror traditions. Innocent young Ai has not been herself lately and that means big trouble in Ham Tran’s Hollow (trailer here), which screens as part of this year’s Macabro, the International Horror Film Festival in Mexico City.

Rebellious Chi does not really know why, but for some reason she distrusts her well-heeled step-father, Vuong Gia Huy. However, she adores her little half-sister Ai, even though she feels like the young cherub has taken her place in their mother’s heart. She takes it harder than anyone when Ai drowns while she was supposed to be watching her. Yet, only copper uncle Thuc understands how much he is hurting. To keep the film’s emotional pendulum swinging, Thuc thinks he has good news. When he went to identify Ai’s body at the big city morgue, he found her inexplicably alive on the slab. Of course, after the accident Ai becomes suspiciously distant and frankly kind of weird.

Hollow definitely starts with the child-and/or-teen in jeopardy template, but Tran’s execution is tight and tense, abetted by the pungently evocative atmosphere. He out Blumhouses most Blumhouse productions. Theologically, evil is defined not as the opposite of good but as its perversion. This is a principle Hollow illustrates in spades. For a genre film, it employs some pretty deep archetypal symbolism of innocence and vengeance, while simultaneously calling out Southeast Asia’s most pernicious social pathologies.

Despite all the lurid and paranormal elements, the ensemble is admirable restrained. As Thuc, Jayvee Mai sets the world-weary, spiritually bereft tone. He really looks like the sort of guy who pops an Excedrin as soon as he rolls out of bed. Young Nguyen Hong An and even younger Lam Thanh My also contribute remarkably assured performances, setting a gold standard for kids in horror films.

Although Hollow revisits some familiar Grunge-ish terrain, its secrets are distinctively creepy. The full significance of its uncanny business resonates to an unsettling extent. Life is hard in this spooky morality play, but karma is even tougher, especially for the seemingly privileged Vuongs. Recommended for fans of supernatural horror, Hollow screens tomorrow (8/21) and Sunday the 30th, as part of Macabro 2015.

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

The Curse of Downers Grove: Most Likely to Die . . .

Thanks to the original Poltergeist film, nobody wants to build on ancient burial sites anymore. Unfortunately, Chrissie Swanson’s high school was prefabbed in the 1960s or 1970s, when they were not so particular about defiling sacred ground. As a result, a legend of a curse hangs over the student body, inevitably given credence to many by the annual untimely death of a senior during the week before graduation. Swanson is not superstitious, but a psycho-stalker gives her very real and immediate cause for concern in Derick Martini’s The Curse of Downers Grove (trailer here), co-adapted by Bret Easton Ellis, which opens this Friday in select theaters.

It is sad enough living in a burg called Downers Grove. With a name like that, suicide and depression should be even bigger problems than curses. Swanson is too level-headed for any of that. She is a defiant unbeliever, despite her periodic visions of irate Native Americans. Inexplicably, her single mom choses the notorious curse week to gallivant off with her beau for a romantic getaway. Sure, she is entitled to lead her own life, but if you live in Downers Grove, some things ought to be pretty high on your worry list.

Of course, this gives Swanson’s obnoxious younger brother and her trampy BFF Tracy an opportunity to throw a blow-out bash. However, Swanson is in no mood to party after the local college’s star quarterback tries to pull a Cosby on her at a frat mixer. Swanson manages to fight him off, but gauges an eye out in the process. Evidently, this will not help his NFL prospects much. As a result, the now one-eyed Chuck lurches into full blown psychosis. The Swanson siblings, Tracy, and Bobby, Chrissie’s sensitive auto mechanic crush, will have to hunker down and try to whether the storm.

In some ways, Downers Grove is sort of like a throwback to Kevin Williamson’s glory years, but Elis and Martini deserve surprising credit for not over-writing it. They never over-reach trying to sound hip and ironic. Frankly, the film is pretty grounded, all things considered. Although it is nowhere near as effective as David Robert Mitchell’s It Follows, but both films portray the young characters’ relationships with similarly realistic complications and ambiguities.

Lead actress Bella Heathcote is not exactly Maika Monroe either, but she is still refreshingly down-to-earth and forceful. Neither a shrinking violet nor a scream queen, she shows some real screen presence and backbone. As Chuck, Kevin Zeggers goes nuts pretty effectively. On the other hand, Lucas Till feels out of place playing Bobby, as if he were afraid he might get some grease on his clothes.

Swanson’s “if I had but only known” voice-over narration is ridiculously heavy-handed, yet it sort of fits the occasion for precisely that reason. Although it is a relatively straight forward genre movie, Downers Grove is not as horrifying as The Canyons or as nihilistic as American Psycho. In fact, it is reasonably effective in a VOD kind of way, arguably representing Ellis’s best film work to date. While not a classic by any means, The Curse of Downers Grove holds a strange, somewhat guilty, retro-nostalgic late 1990s appeal for horror fans when it releases this Friday (8/21) in selected theaters and on iTunes.