Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Takashi Miike’s Blade of the Immortal

Let’s run the numbers on this one. By his count, this is Takashi Miike’s 100th film. Our anti-hero, Manji, is known as the “Killer of 100,” for reasons that need no belaboring, but he has pledged to kill 1,000 bad guys to redeem himself. It looks like he easily reaches the millennium mark judging from Miike’s live-action adaptation of Hiroaki Samura’s popular manga series, maybe by a factor of two or three. The body count is higher than an October’s worth of horror films, but each hack-and-slash death is executed with Miike’s incomparable artistry in Blade of the Immortal (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

Ill-fated Manji was caught up in a Shogunate power struggle and forced to kill his own brother-in-law. He tried to care for his younger sister Machi after grief drove her mad, despite their fugitive status. Tragically, the smugly confident leader of a small army of bounty-hunters kills her before his very eyes, but that turns out extraordinarily badly for them. Of course, he kills every last one of them, but it nearly costs him his life, which would have been fine with Manji. Instead, the supernaturally old nun Yaobikuni slips mystically healing bloodworms into body, rendering him immortal.

After Rin Asano’s sensei father is killed by Kagehisa Anotsu’s Ittō-ryū martial arts cult, Yaobikuni appears before her, recommending she seek out Manji to serve as her bodyguard. The immortal swordsman is not inclined to be helpful, but he cannot help feeling protective towards Asano, because she is the spitting image of Machi. And away we go.

Frankly, Manji is a perfect Chanbara hero for Miike’s sensibilities. Think of him as one part Kurosawa’s Yojimbo, one part Wolverine, and a third part Larry Talbott from the Universal Wolfman movies. The relationship that develops between him and Asano is deeply compelling so it is easy to understand why the manga has lasted for over a trillion volumes.

Playing against type, Takuya Kimura (a.k.a. Kimutaku of the j-pop band SMAP) is suitably grizzled and embittered as Manji, while Hana Sugisaki is endearingly naïve as Asano. Arguably their relationship dynamics and characters arcs are the only ones that mean anything in a wildly cinematic beat-down movie like this, but Erika Toda still steals all her scenes as the lethal geisha Makie Otonotachibana, who is a better ally than the clammy Anotsu deserves.

Character, performance, and all the rest of that blah-blah-blah are all very nice, but the bloody, massively over-the-top fight sequences are what this film is really all about. It opens with some spectacular payback and ends with an epic, large-scale, all-hands-on-deck, slice-and-dice battle. Let’s put it this way, Miike does not surpass third act battle royale of 13 Assassins, but he comes close to equaling it, which is saying something.

There is no question the final battle is utterly nuts, in multiple ways, but boy, is it ever fun to immerse yourself in. For his 100th film, Miike was not taking any prisoners or offering any quarter. It is the kind of full-scale chanbara blow-out that is good for what ails you, like 13 Assassins and the Rurouni Kenshin trilogy. Very highly recommended, Blade of the Immortal opens this Friday (11/3) in New York, at the Quad Cinema.

Wait for Your Laugh: Rose Marie Dishes

Before there was Joan Rivers, there was Rose Marie—and she is still with us. Initially, she was billed as “Baby Rose Marie.” The child star belted out Sophie Tucker standards for fans like Al Capone, but as she aged into adulthood, she started to integrate comedy into her act. It was a heck of an act that would take her from vaudeville and network radio to television, Broadway, and Vegas. Rose Marie herself takes stock of her life and career in Jason Wise’s snappy documentary profile, Wait for Your Laugh (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

Perhaps you only remember Rose Marie from The Dick Van Dyke Show, but that is okay. It is one of the few old sitcoms that still holds up. She and her partner in quips, Morey Amsterdam are two big reasons it still has an edge. Yet, her career goes back to the prohibition era, when she was a child performer on radio—when radio was the most significant form of entertainment going.

She segued nicely into torch-signing and night club gigs, as soon as she was old enough to be served in them. It was there that she met her future husband, big band trumpeter Buddy Guy. As one might expect from a portrait of the tart-tongued performer, there are a lot of laughs in WFYL, but the heart of the film focuses on her once-in-a-lifetime romance with Guy.

Guy was a musician’s musician and a sideman’s sideman, who was the first trumpeter for Kay Kyser and Bing Crosby’s bands at the height of their popularity. He was a studio work-horse, so it warms the hearts of us big band fans to hear about their deep abiding love for each other. Unfortunately, it also chokes us up to hear how he was taken from her far too early, as the result of a mysterious blood infection in 1964, at the peak of her visibility on The Dick Van Dyke Show. Even today, over sixty years later, Rose Marie is clearly still crazy in love with him.

Of course, life would go on, but the classic Carl Reiner show would eventually end. Consequently, Rose Marie would have to constantly reinvent herself to keep working. While the first half-hour of WFYL could be a companion film to Ken Burns’ Prohibition and Jazz, it evolves into a show business survival story, very much like Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work. Perhaps Rose Marie was not top-of-mind yesterday, but you are sure to admire her when you how doggedly she kept at it, including work as a Hollywood Squares regular, co-starring on The Doris Day Show, and her later cartoon voice-overs. (Oddly enough, there is no mention of her cameo in Witchboard, starring 80s icon Tawny Kitaen.)

Most of Rose Marie’s story comes straight from her, looking straight into the camera and delivering like she is back on-stage at Slapsy Maxie’s. Yet, Wise further livens up the film with stylized recreations of her encounters with key figures she met along the way, such as Bugsy Siegel. Plus, her old crony Peter Marshall also supplies some supplemental narration.

There is a ton of pop culture history in Wise’s doc that is endanger of being forgotten in the age of Netflix and Amazon, but this film brings it back in nostalgic waves for anyone old enough to remember seeing any of her shows syndicated on broadcast television. Highly recommended for the eternally hip, Wait for Your Laugh opens this Friday (11/3) in New York, downtown at the Angelika Film Center and in Midtown at the Landmark 57 West.

Stanislaw Lem on Film: Solyaris (1968)

In space, only one thing can hear your guilt trips. That would be the sentient ocean on planet Solaris. The very same Solaris. Four years before Andrei Tarkovsky’s masterpiece, Russian television produced a surprisingly distinctive two-part adaptation of Stanisław Lem’s source novel. It was a leaner, darker Solaris, with a “y” added for greater Cyrillic-ness. Although subsequently overshadowed, there is still considerable merit to Boris Nirenburg & Lidiya Ishimbayeva’s Solyaris, which screens during the Stanisław Lem on Film series at Anthology Film Archives.

Dr. Kris Kelvin has been dispatched to check up on the space station orbiting planet Solaris. Much to his surprise, he finds the station in shambles and his best friend Gibaryan has committed suicide. Dr. Snaut’s reception is disconcertingly cagey, while Dr. Sartorius is downright standoffish. Kelvin soon discovers why. The collective mind of Solaris’s great ocean has plumbed the darkest corners of their subconsciousness to generate so-called visitors. In Kelvin’s case, it will Hari, the wife he inadvertently drove to suicide.

Snaut and Sartorius would much prefer to be rid of their visitors, but not Kelvin. At first her visitation is painful, but soon he embraces her presence as a second chance. In fact, he might just be falling in love with her, perhaps for the first time. Of course, this puts him diametrically at odds with Snaut and Sartorius.

It is really not fair to compare the 1968 Solyaris with Tarkovsky’s lofty classic. They might have the same basic story, but they exist on different planes. That does not mean we can safely dismiss Nirenberg & Ishibayaeva’s version—quite the contrary. While quite faithful to Lem’s narrative, their black-and-white interpretation is distinctively moody. Their evocative use of light and shadow suggests film noir, while the severely industrial sets hint at German expressionism.

While the Russian TV version lacks Tarkovsky’s sweep, there is a stark intimacy, like far-future science fiction by way of Cassavetes. Yet, despite the boxy aspect ratio, Solyaris is still quite a cinematic work. It is also easier to follow the strategies devised by Snaut and Sartorius to quiet the Solaris ocean during the second half.

Vasiliy Lanovoy is more tightly restrained than the guilt-wracked Donatas Banionis in Tarkovsky’s film, but he aptly suits Nirenburg & Ishimbayeva’s quieter, nearly suffocating film. Vladimir Etush’s Snaut is more of a compassionate, slightly schlubby everyman, but like his Tarkovsky counterpart, he too makes a strong impression. Frankly, the 1968 telefilm’s weak link is Viktor Zozulin’s Sartorius, who looks and acts somewhat cartoonish.

Adapting Lem is never an easy assignment, so you have to give Nirenburg & Ishimbayeva credit for getting the general spirit of his work and executing it with so much style. Arguably, the fact that such a credible Solaris predates Tarkovsky’s film probably made it easier for fans to give Stephen Soderbergh a chance with his 2002 non-remake adaptation. Both Russian takes are very highly recommended when Tarkovsky’s Solaris screens this Saturday (11/4) and Thursday (11/9) and 1968’s Solyaris screens this coming Sunday (11/5) as part of Stanisław Lem on Film series at Anthology Film Archives.

Monday, October 30, 2017

Stanislaw Lem on Film: Professor Zazul (short)

Stanisław Lem’s famous space-traveler Ijon Tichy is the sort of fellow who could possibly save or destroy the universe. He always understood the science of his wacky circumstances, but he was known to be klutzy and guileless. However, he caught a nice break when he was depicted by the distinguished-looking Piotr Kurowski in two short films produced for Polish television, including Marek Nowicki & Jerzy Stawicki’s Professor Zazul, which screens as part of Stanisław Lem on Film, the upcoming retrospective survey of cinema based on the work of the great Polish science fiction writer.

Initially, the 1962 short appears to have more of the trappings of a horror film when Tichy is forced to take refuge in an old dark house during a severe storm. It turns out the place even has a mysterious laboratory and a scientist, who is most likely quite mad. That would indeed be Zazul—sort of.

Frankly, Zazul feels considerably ahead of its time, given its doppelganger themes, the circular structure, and the generally slippery nature of reality. In retrospect, it looks like considerable resources went into its twenty-two minutes of air time, including set decorations worthy of the best Frankenstein films and a groovy vibraphone-heavy soundtrack composed by Edward Pałłasz. Plus, the frequent product placement for Coca-Cola is almost bemusingly surreal, given the era—early 1960s Poland.

Kurowski plays Tichy as a rather intelligent and principled fellow, but the film still stays largely true to the vibe of Lem’s humorously outlandish stories. Stanisław Milski certainly gets his Ernest Thesinger on playing the sinister scientist, which gives the proceedings extra added genre appeal. Recommended for Lem admirers and fans of Eastern European science fiction in the funky DEFA tradition, Professor Zazul screens this Wednesday (11/1) and Saturday (11/11) as part of the shorts program during Anthology Film Archive’s Lem film series.

1945: Guilt and Transition in Hungary

After seven decades, Hungary is finally starting to come to terms with its WWII-era history through cinema. It certainly didn’t happen during the Communist regime. Granted, there was an occasional film here and there, but the reckoning started in earnest during the 2000s. For their efforts, Hungarian filmmakers garnered an Academy Award for Son of Saul and a nomination for The Notebook. Unlike those films, the atrocities have finally ceased when this Magyar exploration of national culpability begins. Only guilt remains in Ferenc Török’s 1945 (trailer here), which opens this Wednesday in New York.

In a provincial village like this, everyone knows everybody’s business. That also means they know who denounced who—and who profited by it. When the elderly Hermann Samuel and his grown son arrive with two coffin shaped boxes, nearly every villager assumes they are heirs or agents of the town’s deported (and presumed dead) Jewish citizens. Naturally, their property was subsequently divided up by their former neighbors, particularly Istvan Szentes the town clerk and “Bandi” Kustar the town drunk.

The arrival of the Jewish strangers is especially awkward for Szentes, because this is his milk-toast son’s wedding day to the pretty country girl Kisrozsi. Their union would solidify his campaign for social position. However, the appearance of the mysterious Jewish men and Kisrozsi’s unabated attraction to her former lover, Jancsi, the village Communist who returned in triumph, could potentially complicate matters.

Essentially, there are two sides to 1945. When following the Samuels, the film has a stark, almost ceremonial tone. Yet, when it shifts its focus to the grubby, grasping villagers, there is a marked spirit of fatalism. Clearly, the mean-spirited Jancsi, who lords his camaraderie with the occupying Soviets over the village, is not any worthier of Kisrozsi’s affections than the socially awkward Arpad Szentes, perhaps even less so. Indeed, there is good reason to believe there are hard times ahead for both the bourgeoisie Sventes family and Kisrozsi’s land-owning peasant (kulak) clan. Török vividly conveys the deceptively calm and tensely uncertain tenor of those times, while witheringly exposing the town’s individual and collective guilt.

Despite all his character’s faults, there is something deeply compelling about Peter Rudolf’s portrayal of Istvan Szentes as a man who sold his soul, but might not be allowed to fully reap the expected benefits. Likewise, Dora Sztarenki is quite poignant as Kisrozsi, who has come to question her own Faustian bargain. Yet, the film is dominated by the images of the two mourners silently following their grim cargo to the cemetery. Török’s late co-producer Ivan Angelus is especially haunting as the elder Samuel.

Thanks to Elemer Ragalyi’s stunning black-and-white cinematography, 1945 looks like it could pass for an epilogue to Schindler’s List. Török masterfully controls the atmosphere, forcing viewers to share the stifling hush that has enveloped the village. 1945 is very highly recommended, but it probably requires sophisticated viewers when it opens this Wednesday (11/1) in New York, at Film Forum and the Lincoln Plaza.

Oscar Contender: Munich ’72 and Beyond (short)

It only took 45 years, but Germany has finally recognized the eleven Israeli athletes and coaches murdered at the 1972 Munich Olympics, along with a West German policeman. So much for German efficiency. In contrast, it took less than a day for the PLO-offshoot Black September to permanently shatter the illusion of Olympic brotherhood. The horrific attack and subsequent decades long struggle for both the German government and the International Olympic Committee to acknowledge the tragedy are chronicled in Stephen Crisman’s short documentary, Munich ‘72 (trailer here), which commences a series of special screening this Friday in New York and Los Angeles.

Nearly everything about the Olympic terrorist attacks are worse than you assumed. The FRG’s response was stunningly incompetent and there is ample evidence to suggest a government cover-up of the worst details remains ongoing. What is undeniable is eleven Israelis were assassinated by Black September for the crimes of being Jewish and Israeli (some were also Holocaust survivors).

Crisman concisely but comprehensibly recaps the crimes with the help of fellow team-mates, surviving family members, and journalists covering the Munich Games. Ironically, some of the most telling commentary comes from so-called Palestinian “journalists,” who accurately gloat the murders put their cause on the world’s front-burner. However, when pressed regarding the torture endured by the athletes, including a castration allowed to fatally bleed out, they protest ignorance or respond with the sound of crickets chirping. (Raed Othman, cat got your tongue?)

Indeed, this is a case where the world (especially Europe) rewarded cowardly carnage. Time and again, survivors describe the dissembling responses they received from Germany and the IOC when they requested a proper memorial for their loved ones. We hear at length from Ankie Spitzer, Ilana Romano, and Michal Shahar, who suffered such terrible losses and then endured decades of insults in the form of silence from the craven IOC.

The Munich memorial looks classy and altogether fitting, which is something. However, until the IOC finally acknowledges the twelve victims during the official Olympic ceremonies, they continue to provide passive encouragement for further acts of utter butchery.

It is amazing how much Crisman packs into twenty-nine minutes. The film is part history lesson, part expose, and partly a tutorial in how to affirm life in the face of death. Even if you think you know what happened, Munich ’72 will deepen your understanding. It is an infuriating and inspiring film that everyone should see, because the implications of those horrendous events definitely apply to our era as well. Very highly recommended, Munich ’72 and Beyond will have a series of special Oscar season screenings starting this Friday (11/3) at the Cinema Village in New York and the Laemmle Music Hall in Los Angeles.

Stanislaw Lem on Film: The Investigation

The word mystery has several connotations, but they are largely incompatible for Scotland Yard Inspector Gregory. He catches criminals—period. Questions of truth and metaphysics are way outside his comfort zone. Unfortunately, he will be forced to go there in Marek Piestrak’s adaptation of The Investigation, which screens as part of Stanisław Lem on Film, the upcoming retrospective survey of cinema based on the work of the great Polish science fiction writer.

It started weirdly. Various provincial morgues and funeral parlors started reporting instances of corpses being tampered with. However, just as Gregory takes the lead on the serial corpse-mover investigation, it escalates to include full-fledged walking dead. Of course, Gregory does not believe anything supernatural could be afoot. It is all just part of some eccentric criminal’s plan to sow chaos and confusion amongst the populace. He will never accept any outlandish or uncanny explanations, even when he maybe possibly sees one of the missing dead people riding the bus.

Unfortunately, science does not do him any favors either. Dr. Sciss is a statistician volunteering his services with Scotland Yard, but all he offers up is a correlation between areas of reported dead body activity and significantly low rates of cancer. Almost perversely (from Gregory’s standpoint), Sciss starts pushing him to think about the problem in more cosmic terms. As a result, he starts to suspect the statistician of being his super-villain.

The Investigation is a sly and heady novel, but it would be a challenge to adapt it dramatically. Nevertheless, Polish television took at least two cracks at it. Piestrak and co-screenwriter Andrzej Kotkowski are remarkably faithful to its somewhat loose narrative and rigorous philosophical inquiry. To make it even stranger, The Investigation boasts a massively funky soul jazz soundtrack by Włodzimierz Nahorny that feels completely at odds with the film’s Bertrand Russell-esque logical-epistemological gamesmanship, but holy smokes, does it ever sound fantastic.

Like a good soldier, Tadeusz Borowski tries to make Gregory more plodding than Maigret. However, Edmund Fetting gives the film some edge as the Inspector’s arrogant but more politically astute commander, Sheppard. As a pseudo-surrogate for the filmmakers, Sheppard clearly has little faith in the bureaucracy’s chances of saving the day.

The early 1970s TV film totally captures the look of its era, but Nahorny makes it sound timeless. Although Lem’s short novel was originally published in 1959, his philosophical provocations have not been undermined by advances in forensic science. In short, it all holds up jolly well. Highly recommended,
The Investigation screens this Wednesday (11/1) and Saturday (11/11) as part of Anthology Film Archive’s Lem film series.

Sunday, October 29, 2017

Cinepocalypse ’17: Curtain-Raiser

Where can you experience the terrors of vintage 1980s video games from Hell, subterranean warfare during WWI, and dirt-biking in the mountains of Brazil? This year’s Cinepocalypse, which will screen at least three of the year’s most distinctive genre releases, Graham Skipper’s Sequence Break, Leo Scherman’s Trench 11, and Vicente Amorim’s Motorrad. Plus, you will also find Mickey Keating’s nightmarish rebound film, Psychopaths.

But wait, there’s more. Mr. Eric Roberts and his super-human work ethic will make two special appearances at the festival, including a screening of Larry Cohen’s The Ambulance and a live recording of the podcast Eric Roberts is the Fucking Man. In the time it’s taken you to read this far, he’s already made another three movies, so show some respect.

We’re looking forward to covering the festival. We’re particularly psyched to have a chance to catch up with Andy Collier & Toor Mian’s Charismata (with Collier scheduled to attend), Lukas Feigelfeld’s Hagazussa: A Heathen’s Curse, Jimmy Henderson’s Jailbreak, Adolfo Kolmerer & William James’ Snowflake (with the filmmakers scheduled to attend), and Seth A. Smith The Crescent, so keep an eye out for that coverage.

This year’s Cinepocalypse runs from Thursday to Thursday (11/2-11/9) at the Music Box Theatre in Chicago. Check out their website here for films descriptions and schedules.

Morbido ’17: I Am a Hero

Hideo Suzuki has been a loser all his life, but he stands a better than average chance of surviving the zombie apocalypse. That is because in heavily gun-regulated Japan, he owns one of the few fully licensed hunting rifles. His survival and that of a teenage girl will depend on whether he has the wherewithal to live up to the heroic meaning of his name in Shinsuke Sato’s I Am a Hero (trailer here), which screens during the 2017 Morbido Film Fest, in CDMX.

Suzuki was once a runner-up in a promising manga artist contest, but he now toils as an assistant in another artist’s manga sweatshop. Even his long indulgent girlfriend gives him the boot, but she invites him back shortly after being infected with the ZQN. Instead of a reunion, Suzuki will be forced to break-up with her permanently.

About this time, Tokyo is over-run by ZQN zombies, but Suzuki manages to get to the outskirts of town with the distressed Hiromi Hayakari. Waking the next morning, he discovers she was bitten days ago by an infected infant, but has yet to feel the effects. Appointing himself her protector, Suzuki pledges to take her to Mt. Fuji, where the altitude will dispel the effects of the virus, as per the internet, which could never be wrong.

Unfortunately, as she starts to fade physically (still without turning), Suzuki is forced to take shelter with a Walking Dead group of survivors encamped on the roofs of an upscale shopping plaza. There he meets the former nurse Yabu Oda who tends to the still human Hayakari. Of course, their self-appointed leader Iura, covets Suzuki’s firearm, as do those who covet Iura’s position.

If ever there was a film 2nd Amendment activists should embrace, this is it. Not to be spoilery, but it spectacularly illustrates the difference an equalizer can make between survival and having your brains eaten before your very eyes. In some ways, IAAH follows a conventional Living Dead/Walking Dead template, but the third act is such an adrenaline-charged jaw-dropper, it could easily become a breakout hit with the Train to Busan audience. Seriously, this is the best zombie film we have seen since Busan, even though IAAH technically predates it.

Yô Ôizumi is pitch-perfect as the nebbish Suzuki reeling from one existential crisis to another. Once again, Masami Nagasawa is terrific as Nurse Yabu. It is a forceful, complex genre performance, just like her work in Kurosawa’s Before We Vanish. Kasumi Arimura is also quite poignant as Hayakari. Indeed, their humanizing relationships will leave viewers eager to revisit these characters, something that screenwriter Akiko Nogi’s adaptation of Kengo Hanazawa’s manga leaves plenty of space for. After all, manga can go on forever.

Granted, the shopping plaza setting might remind fans of Dawn of the Dead, but the tech team can boast of some distinctively disgusting new zombie make-up and effects all their own. Plus, the lock-and-load go-for-broke extended climax is sheer movie magic. Very highly recommended, I Am a Hero screens Halloween Tuesday (10/31), as part of this year’s Morbido in Mexico City.

Saturday, October 28, 2017

Asian World ’17: Lord of Shanghai

In the early Twentieth Century, Shanghai was an open city and a divided city. According to Hong Ying’s source novel, fugitives could enter the front door of Madam Xin’s brothel from Qing controlled territory and exit through the back door into the French Concession. Pedantic spoil sports argue this was geographically impossible, but it captures the chaotic nature of the times. Xiao Yuegui (a.k.a. Cassia) was sold into the brothel as a mere servant girl, but she will become a major player in the city’s power games during the course of Sherwood Hu’s Lord of Shanghai (trailer here), which screens during the 2017 Asian World Film Festival.

Since Cassia’s feet were never bound, Madam Xin considers her only fit for scrubbing floors. However, both “Lord” Chang Lixiong, leader of Shanghai’s most powerful Triad and Song, the venal regional Qing military commander would beg to differ. Fortunately for Cassia, Lord Chang wins that battle, becoming her protector and eventually lover, while ironically boarding her in Madam’s Xin’s. He and Song also disagree over the revolution. After a long flirtation, Lord Chang has formally aligned himself with the Republican cause, whereas Song naturally seeks to protect the source of his power.

When the revolutionary envoy, Huang Peiyu rescues Cassia from Song’s goons, it forges even closer ties between Lord Chang and Huang’s faction. In fact, when Lord Chang is murdered, Huang succeeds him as the new Lord of Shanghai. However, the circumstances of his death were somewhat murky, as Cassia will discover. By that point, she has become the toast of the Shanghai opera world and Huang’s companion-lover, in a case of history repeating itself.

Lord is a ripping good period piece that probably boasts more brothel scenes than a season of Game of Thrones, but of course, few naughty parts to speak of. Basically, think of it as Hou Hsiao-hsien’s Flowers of Shanghai with Kung Fu and gun fights.

Hu Jun is terrific as Lord Chang. Frankly, he looks ten or fifteen years older than he has in hits like As the Lights Go Out, but he wears the advanced maturity well. As the tandem of adolescent and adult Cassia, Li Meng and Yu Nan could practically pass for the same person. It is kind of spooky. They also do a nice job of tracking Cassia’s development into forceful woman, who takes responsibility for her own destiny. Qin Hao seems uncomfortable with Huang’s swagger, but seriously how much fun is it to watch Bai Ling vamp it up as Madam Xin?

Lord is loaded with action and scandal, but for some reason it underperformed at the Mainland box office, leaving the already completed sequel in an uncertain position. We can clearly see where its headed, but the first film ends at a fully satisfying juncture. Although it is more stylistically conventional, the two-part adaptation of Hong’s novel clearly represents another ambitious production from Hu, whose Tibetan Hamlet, Prince of the Himalayas is truly a visual stunner. Highly recommended for fans of action-driven historicals, Lord of Shanghai screens this Tuesday (10/31), as part of the 2017 Asian World Film Festival, in Culver City.

Friday, October 27, 2017

Morbido ’17: Dhogs

Forget about Mars and Venus, Red and Blue, or any other social dichotomies. According to this film, humanity is really made up of dogs and hogs. The former are loyal and obedient, whereas the latter are dirty, self-indulgent, and perverse. Either way, man remains inherently animalistic. Andrés Goteira invites us to take a good hard look at human nature and then shows us up for being voyeuristic in Dhogs (trailer here), which screens during the 2017 Morbido Film Fest, in CDMX.

Essentially, Dhogs is a Galician language serial killer movie (explaining its presence at Morbido), except it actually gets worse than that for one prospective victim. The narrative is sort of a triptych, but the interconnecting links are especially random for this sort of post-Tarantino movie. Perhaps the weirdest thing going on is Goteira’s explicit homages to Léos Carax’s Holy Motors, of all films.

The unnamed cabbie is sort of Monsieur Oscar figure, but before proceeding with his head-scratching business, he will drop off a middle-aged businessman, who will subsequently pick up a younger woman in the bar of his hotel. Their illicit courtship will be closely watched by the bartender, another patron, and what appears to be a theater audience, in a recurring bit of meta fourth wall-breaking gamesmanship.

Unfortunately, “Álex” as she calls herself, will be abducted by a serial killer during her walk-of-shame from the hotel. From here on out, the film gets drastically darker and dramatically more violent. Frankly, her initial abductor will not even be the worst of her problems, but he is still pretty damn bad.

The second and third acts have some tough stuff that is truly punishing to watch. To cap it all off, the big concluding revelation manages to be both disappointing and disturbing. It is true Goteira is trying to say something the dehumanizing influences of our hedonistic contemporary culture, but he really flogs the viewer with his depictions of man’s bestial treatment of his fellow man.

Still, Melania Cruz is utterly riveting and absolutely harrowing as the horribly unfortunate Álex. It is a great performance, but it is still just as hard to watch as everything else in the film. Respected for the ensemble work, but not recommended for mortal human consumption, Dhogs screens tomorrow (10/28) as part of this year’s Morbido in Mexico City. Those in attendance should definitely make a higher priority of 78/52, Trench 11, Sequence Break, and The Endless.

Morbido ’17: Nightworld

This stately downtown Sofia apartment building is a lot like Sigourney Weaver’s complex in the original Ghostbusters. It has some strange design elements that could only serve an uncanny function. At least it’s quiet—usually. When former LA cop Brett Anderson accepts the position of live-in security guard, he assumes it will the cushy gig his employers promised. Alas, whatever the heck he is supposed to be guarding will ruin his nice, peaceful evenings in Patricio Vallardes’ Nightworld (trailer here), which screens during the 2017 Morbido Film Fest, south of the border.

Anderson has been plagued by nightmares featuring his late wife, so he moves from the Bulgarian provinces to Sofia, accepting the ridiculously easy job his pal lined up. He doesn’t even have to spend his time watching the security CCTV. They have software that flags any anomalies for his daily review. Frankly, the basement “hanger” they are monitoring is so dark, there is really nothing for him to see anyway. It is low stress work that comes with a well-appointed flat, but his nightmares become even more violent after moving in. On the plus side, the inviting café across the street employs an attractive barista named Zara. She is friendly too. She will be the one who finally informs Anderson of the building’s infamous history.

So, when Anderson sees some kind of something move across the monitor, who’s he gonna call? That’s right, Robert Englund. He would be our first choice too. In this case, he is playing Jacob Keaton, a rather eccentric and completely blind security consultant. Keaton might be blind, but he is still a natty dresser. Englund plays it to the hilt, practically giggling with mischievous glee—and his enthusiasm is contagious. Whenever he is on-screen, he kicks up the energy level several notches.

Gianni Capaldi is also quite a pleasant surprise, displaying Hammer-worthy scenery-chewing chops as Anderson’s weirdly vague boss Martin. Lorina Kamburova is indeed quite charming as Zara. Granted, it is hard to believe Anderson and Keaton would let her tag along when they start investigating the cosmic evil-doing in the basement. On the other hand, it wouldn’t make much sense to push her off screen.  This is a horror movie, just deal with it. Everymanish Jason London gets upstaged left and right, but he is a reasonably solid and credibly incredulous presence.

Even in broad daylight, Sofia looks a film noir. Vallardes and cinematographer Pau Mirabet take full advantage of the cinematic setting, infusing the film with ominous style. You can glean hints of a giallo influence, but they scrupulously avoid slavish pastiches. Altogether, it is quite distinctive visually and a good deal of fun. Recommended for fans of Euro horror with relatively little gore, Nightworld screens tomorrow (10/28) as part of this year’s Morbido in Mexico City—and it is currently on VOD platforms in the USA.

Halloween Pussy Trap Kill! Kill!: Worse Than 31

They are like the meta women hardcore glam punk equivalent of the Monkees, except they will not be around for long. The band Kill Pussy Kill (played by indie scream queens, but credited with at least one song on the soundtrack album) is about to be kidnapped and taught a less in sacrifice by a Jigsaw like “Mastermind” in Jared Cohn’s Halloween Pussy Trap Kill! Kill! (trailer here), which opens today in Los Angeles.

Oddly enough, given the lurid echoes of the title, Kill! Kill! does not proudly fly its Russ Meyer influences. You could maybe force some parallels, but in Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!, it is the women who are the abductors, whereas in HPTKK, they are the abducted. Kill Pussy Kill were on their way to a career-making gig, when a creepy gas station hick with the name Dale stitched above his pocket kidnaps the women, so they can serve as pawns in the wheelchair bound freak’s game of life and death. Before they can advance to each new room (and supposedly closer to freedom), one band member must die.

Based on the prologue, we are given good reason to believe the sadistic psycho is actually a former Special Forces veteran, who had his face cut off by Jihadists. Basically, that means Cohn rips off Rob Zombie’s 31 and Raze, but adds character assassination of American military service personnel as an extra added bonus. HPTKK even takes place on Halloween night just like 31, but Zombie’s film, featuring the gothic warehouse setting and the Eighteenth-Century costumes donned by the sicko audience, is more ambitious and distinctive looking. Frankly, I never thought I would use the words “ambitious” and “distinctive” to describe the soullessly violent 31, but here we are, thanks to HPTKK.

None of the bandmembers has much personality, not even their leader, Amber Stardust, played by Sara Malakul Lane, who has to start turning down some of her fiancée’s projects and get back to making terrific genre films like Sun Choke and Beyond the Gates. Problematically, the most sharply delineated and proactive character is former bandmember DJ Speed, who we first meet while attempting to force himself on another bandmember. Still, it is pretty mind-blowing that Richard Grieco, from the original 21 Jump Street, plays gristly, knuckle-dragging Dale. To his credit, he certainly chews the scenery.

Yeah, not good. This a brutal but derivative film that has no reason for being, except to sell a soundtrack album. Not recommended under any circumstances, Halloween Pussy Trap Kill! Kill! opens today (10/27) in Los Angeles, at the Arena Cinema.

Thursday, October 26, 2017

AFF ’17: Time Trap

Being hippies, Prof. Hopper’s parents are by definition trapped in time. In their case, it is also literally true. After years of looking, the archeology professors will finally stumble into the rift in the space-time continuum that swallowed them up. When he subsequently disappears, some of his students will follow along behind him in Mark Dennis & Ben Foster’s Time Trap (trailer here), which screens during the 2017 Austin Film Festival.

After years of searching the desert, Hopper finally turns up his parents’ hippy van. Naturally, he ventures into the nearby cave in search of any traces, even though he must pass through an invisible but tangible barrier. Obviously, he is not coming back anytime soon, so Taylor and Jackie, two of the biggest brown-nosers in his class, head out looking for him. They will need wheels, so they hit up poor Cara, who has long carried a torch for Taylor. To give the film a bit of a Goonies flavor (which it even references), Cara brings her little sister Veeves, who in turn invites along the obnoxious Furby.

Since Furby is useless, they leave above be the lookout while they explore the cave. However, he apparently plunges to his death shortly thereafter. When examining his GoPro camera, they inexplicably find hours of him whining about being abandoned without food or water. Meanwhile, Prof. Hopper exits and re-enters after finding his students gear outside. It soon becomes all too clear there are other parties lost in the cave, above and beyond the wild west gunslinger Hopper encounters in the alternate entrance.

Time Trap really proves how much a professional grade cast can elevate what is essentially a half-baked B-movie. There is a lot of scampering about caves and running from Neanderthals, but the game ensemble largely convinces us this is a cosmically serious situation. The screenplay (solely credited to Dennis) also manages to take the Interstellar-esque time warp Macguffin and follow it to its most mind-bending logical extremes.

Rather refreshingly, Brianne Howey, Reiley McClendon, and Cassidy Gifford all seem reasonably together and down-to-earth as Jackie, Taylor, and Cara, respectively. Frankly, the only character who causes serious acid reflux is the cringe-inducing Furby, but Dennis & Foster axe him early in the second act.

Time Trap a definitely a kitchen sink film that features both provocative far-future speculations and chaotic subterranean bedlam. It makes you wonder what cheesy favorites like Spacehunter: Adventures in the Forbidden Zone and Prisoners of the Lost Universe might have been like, if they had 2010s digital technology available to them. Granted, Time Trap is a more inventive and polished, but it has a similar eagerness to please. Affectionately recommended for science fiction fans, Time Trap screens Saturday (10/28) and Wednesday (11/1) during this year’s Austin Film Festival.

Asian World ’17: Mad World

It is never easy for families to deal with mental illness issues, but it is especially difficult in Hong Kong, thanks to the high population density, hyper-connected social media, and iffy social services. At least that is the grim portrait painted in one of Hong Kong’s most lauded indie films of the year. Chosen as Hong Kong’s official foreign language Oscar submission (and previously a selection of the 2017 NYAFF), Wong Chun’s Mad World (trailer here) screens during the 2017 Asian World Film Festival.

Wong Sai-tung has been somewhat stabilized, but he is really being released jut to free up his bed. His estranged father Wong Tai-hoi agrees to take custody, even though he rents a shockingly small space in a sub-divided flat. Tai-hoi accepts fully responsibility for his absentee parenting, but his late ex-wife Lui Yuen-yung is probably just as much to blame. Like Tung, she probably also wrestled with some sort of bipolar condition and most certainly suffered from dementia late in life. Tung was her primary care-giver, but she was not an easy patient to look after. In fact, she directly contributed to his breakdown.

This would be an opportunity for Tai-hoi to redeem himself, but Florence Chan’s screenplay is never so simplistic or Pollyannaish. The working-class father will try his best for his former stockbroker son, but he is ill-equipped to deal with such challenges. Regardless, Tung may very well reach a point where he does not want to be helped.

Right, we are definitely talking about some jolly fun stuff here. As if the mental health themes were not depressing enough, Wong and Chan also give viewers a good look at how the marginalized live in today’s Hong Kong. Their dorm room-like quarters make a Manhattan studio look like a palace. They also have a great deal to say about online bullying and uninformed prejudices against mental illness survivors (they’re generally opposed to both).

Reportedly, this film could not have been made without Eric Tsang’s salary concession. That was probably a good investment on his part, because he has subsequently racked up numerous awards and nominations for his portrayal of Tung’s father. This is a radical departure from the goofy comic roles he is known and even beloved for. Normally, he is such a larger than life presence, but he looks so small here. It is a quiet, acutely dignified turn, but guilt and remorse just seem to stream out of his every pore.

Likewise, Shawn Yue does some of his best work possibly ever as the profoundly damaged Tung. Again, it is not a loud, showy performance, but it resonates deeply. Charmaine Fong further piles on the emotional pain as Jenny Tam, Tung’ ex-wife who was left holding the couple’s financial bag. Her work is harrowingly intense, but the scene in which she verbally condemns Tung while testifying in an Evangelical Christian church was a tin-eared mistake Wong probably already regrets.

Mad World is often hard to watch, but that is mostly a credit to Wong and his cast. There are no easy answers or easy outs in this film. However, the real story is just how convincingly HK superstars Tsang and Yue portray such lost and broken people. Highly recommended, especially for Oscar voters, Mad World screens this Friday morning (10/27) and Saturday night (10/28) as part of the 2017 Asian World Film Festival, in Culver City.

Isaac Florentine’s Acts of Vengeance

Stoics never lose their cool. The pursuit of vengeance taking would therefore seem at odds with practice of stoicism, but anyone who can roughly merge them together will be one dangerous customer. A grieving father inspired by Marcus Aurelius will try to do exactly that in Isaac Florentine’s Acts of Vengeance (trailer here), which opens tomorrow in New York.

Presumably Frank Valera’s voice-overs are an interior monologue, because he has taken a secular vow of silence after the murder of his wife and young daughter. He ruefully admits he used to talk quite a bit as a slimy defense attorney. No, the irony that he used to defend criminals possibly like the ones who killed Sue and Olivia Valera is not lost on him. For a while, he tortures himself by acting as a human punching bag in underground steel cage fights. However, a chance encounter with the Emperor’s Meditations changes his perspective. It says: “Punish only those who are guilty of the crime.” Right, sounds like a plan.

Valera starts snooping around the post-industrial crime scene neighborhood, drawing the attention of the Russian mob. He will take out some frustration on their enforcers, becoming the protector of a nurse at a low-income clinic, who had been forced to supply them traffickable prescription drugs. However, the true identity of his wife’s killer will be a third act revelation most viewers will guess, simply due to the limited cast of characters.

Despite the unsurprising surprise, Acts is suitably lean and agile payback thriller. Florentine is one of the best in the business at rendering street-level action (frankly, he is overdue for a New York retrospective). Once again, his fight scenes are cleanly legible (no shaky cam here), but Florentine adds a further personal stamp by also appearing on-screen as Valera’s hard-nosed sensei.

The whole stoicism thing probably helps (no teary outbursts wanted or required), but Antonio Banderas still gives one of his best performances since at least The Skin I Live In (another revenge drama) and maybe going all the way back to Philadelphia. We definitely believe he is deeply wounded and extremely ticked off. He also shows some convincing moves in the fight scenes. That is all to the good, because Banderas is on screen nearly every second. Still, even in limited screen time, Robert Forster leaves his mark as Valera’s slightly disappointed father-in-law.

Viewers like us may well be of two minds with respect to the film’s ironic twist, but there is no denying its grit. Florentine does this kind of film better than anyone and he brought out Banderas’s A-game. It is also pretty darn literate for the genre. Acts of Vengeance is definitely worth seeing eventually, but whether you should wait for VOD or catch it in theaters depends on how enthusiastic you are about Banderas or Florentine and action payback cinema. It opens tomorrow (10/27) in New York, at the Village East.

Wednesday, October 25, 2017

NYC Horror ’17: The Night Watchmen

Baltimore is so accustomed to violent crime and crummy city services, it takes quite a lot to shock the beleaguered city. However, vampire clowns should do the trick. Apparently, the only thing standing between the city and a wild pack of red-haired, face-painted blood-suckers is an incompetent crew of security guards. Despite everyone’s low expectations, the thin rented-blue line might just hold up to the undead onslaught in Mitchell Altieri’s wildly funny and shamelessly gory vampire comedy, The Night Watchmen (trailer here), which screens during the 2017 New York City Horror Film Festival.

This will be a heck of a first night for the new guy. Everyone calls him Rajeev, because he is stuck with his predecessor’s old uniform and name-tag. His new colleagues think they will have plenty of time to haze him, because most nights they just sit around eating donuts, watching adult videos, and spying on the employees of their primary tenant (a weekly newspaper), especially the cute one. Unfortunately, this will be no ordinary night. It starts when they mistakenly receive a coffin that was supposed to be delivered to the city morgue. Inside lies the remains of Blimpo the Clown, who died under mysterious circumstances while touring Romania—and you know who else came from the Transylvanian region. Needless to say, Blimpo will not stay laying down for long.

Good old Blimpo chews through most of the building, killing or turning most of the paper’s employees. Plus, he also has more clown vampire reinforcements on the way. “Rajeev” and the crew, led by Ken, the supposed former Marine, find themselves in an undead siege. On the positive side, his big crush is still alive, no thanks to their dubious protection.

Night Watchmen is one of the funniest horror comedies since Ava’s Possessions and Witching & Bitching, but it is still fabulously gory. We are talking about some arterial blood sprays that resemble the Bellagio Casino’s water show. To give you a sense of the film’s tone, our intrepid watchmen soon learn vampires pass some really nasty gas after getting staked through the heart.

Yes, Altieri and the battery of co-screenwriters (Jamie Nash, with co-stars Ken Arnold and Dan DeLuca) go there, frequently. Yet, probably the foulest gags involve James Remar playing Randall, the spectacularly sleazy newspaper boss. Good taste prevents us from describing his antics, but it is safe to say you have never seen the veteran character actor so slimy and skeevy.

You have to respect how defiantly tasteless Night Watchmen gets. Yet, the crazy thing is, it still works relatively well as a straight-up vampire horror movie. Cast-members Arnold, DeLuca, Kevin Jiggets, and Kara Luiz deserve all kinds of credit for their flexibility—and a willingness to work drenched in fake blood. It is hard to believe this is the same Altieri that helmed the rather dull hickspolitation flick Holy Ghost People, but here he is, delivering us farting vampires. We want more like this one please. Very highly recommended, The Night Watchmen screens this Friday (10/27) at the Cinepolis Chelsea, as part of this year’s NYC Horror Film Festival.

PFF ’17: The Bar

It is like the Cheers from Hell. The regulars at this downtown Madrid tavern know each other’s names, but that does not mean they like each other It is a far from ideal spot to be trapped during a catastrophe, but its not like anyone had a choice. Elena just came in to charge her phone, but she will struggle to survive with a group of strangers in Álex de la Iglesia’s The Bar (trailer here), which screens during the 2017 Philadelphia Film Festival.

Elena was on her way to meet her internet date, but alas for him, she will stand him up. It is not her fault. Blame the sniper picking off every customer leaving that crummy bar. The mysterious agency at work also disposes of the bodies with ruthless efficiency. Whatever is going on, the Spanish government does not want citizens to know about it. An airtight media blackout is in effect and the bar is soon physically sealed from the outside.

To survive they will have to work together, but that will be harder than it sounds. Both the working-class bartender Sátur and Nacho, the hipster advertising designer would be happy to work closely with Elena, but not so much the shrewish proprietor or the anti-social pensioner who regular comes to feed the slot machines. The retired cop and the lingerie salesman are both rather standoffish, but Israel, the unstable, Bible-quoting homeless maniac will talk to anyone.

Clearly, the Spanish government has improved significantly at perpetrating cover-ups since the release of [REC] 2. It helps that nobody out there really wants to know the truth, or so de la Iglesia clearly suggests. Like My Big Night and Witching & Bitching, The Bar features a colorful cast of characters, driven by an incredible set of circumstances to act like lunatics. However, as the initial sense of mystery wears off, it becomes a rather conventional exercise in lifeboat paranoia. The unhinged Book of Revelations-obsessed ravings of the increasingly violent “Israel” also quickly become wearisome. Still, we can see why de la Iglesia is one of the top genre directors on the international festival scene from the way he generates tension from the contrivances forcing the survivors to squeeze through a narrow drainage hole into the sewers below.

Blanca Suárez truly gives a fearless performance as Elena, especially when de la Iglesia is lathering her in baking oil and forcing her through said apertures. Even apart from all that, she elevates the film with her smart, sophisticated presence. Mario Casas effectively plays against type as the shy, slightly creepy Nacho. However, Jaime Ordóñez’s abrasively eye-rolling, transparently on-the-nose Israel goes beyond the cartoonish lunacy we expect and enjoy in de la Iglesia’s films.

De la Iglesia has a knack for bedlam and spectacle, but he also has a tendency to get bogged down in didactic indulgences (As Luck Would Have It being an unfortunate example). Viewers can see full well the merits of the former inclination and the frustrating implications of the latter during the course of The Bar. It is a film that ultimately undermines itself, but it still earns mega-style points for using Duke Ellington’s “Portrait of Wellman Braud” during the opening and closing credits. Not nearly as much fun as Big Night or Witching, The Bar is best left to the auteur’s most ardent fans when it screens Friday (10/27) and Saturday (10/28) as part of this year’s PFF.

Amityville: The Awakening—Back to Long Island’s Most Infamous Address

At the end of Amityville 3-D, the evil house finally burns to the ground, yet somehow it was up and standing again in the next fourteen films in the franchise. Some were reboots and prequels, but others just ignored the slightly glaring continuity problem. The latest (though much delayed) entry has no need of retcons, because it takes place in a world where the DeFeo murders really happened in 1974 and the series of cash-in movies they spawned also very definitely exist. The latest teen resident will even watch the original 1979 movie with her new classmates at the fateful hour of 3:15 am. That turns out to be a bad idea in Franck Khalfoun’s Amityville: The Awakening, which is supposed to have some sort of release this weekend, despite its early promotional window of free streaming on Google Play.

Belle Walker’s family has just moved into 112 Ocean Avenue, because the price was right and it was conveniently near her catatonic brother’s doctor. That is correct, they have brought a possibly brain-dead vessel into a demonically-possessed house. What a super-good idea that is.

So yes, Awakening is basically the Amityville franchise mixed with the Ozploitation cult classic Patrick for an infusion of new blood. To be honest, it works better than any of us have a right to expect. Poor James Walker does indeed start showing signs of life, but in a series of admirably tense scenes, his sister determines there is something evil in there with him.

Even though Awakening is a Blumhouse production from a horror director with a bit of a critical reputation, the Weinsteins kept it languishing on the shelf. Seriously, what is so hard about marketing an Amityville Horror movie? Frankly, their habit of hiding films in the vault or frittering away their release (Suite Française on Lifetime?) is another reason the industry has so enjoyed their ongoing implosion.

Regardless, Awakening is probably one of the fresher Amityville films, since the original with Margot Kidder (helmed by Stuart Rosenberg, director of Cool Hand Luke). Khalfoun’s take is far from the scariest film you will see this holiday season, but he keeps it moving along nicely and the meta-references to the prior books and films are a rather clever tweaking of the franchise.

Academy Award nominee Jennifer Jason Leigh is surprisingly creepy as Walker’s ill-tempered mother, Joan. Bella Thorne carries the film well enough as Belle Walker, while nicely playing off Taylor Spreitler and Thomas Mann as her personal Monster Squad. Plus, genre regular Kurtwood Smith (Robocop, Agent Carter) does his thing as neurologist Dr. Milton.

As of now, the price is certainly right for Awakening, but it still deserved way better treatment than it received. Franck actually shows a subtle touch and measured restraint, which are not so apparent in Maniac, probably his best-known film so far. For a bit of a nostalgic guilty pleasure, you could do worse than streaming Amityville: The Awakening on Google Play (for free), until November 8th. There is also a theatrical screening vaguely reported for October 28th and the DVD releases on November 14th.