April 13, 2015

Cento notti di orrore [Hundred Nights of Horror] Continues in 2015, with carryover from 2014

Filed under: Personal Observations — Q @ 4:49 pm

Oh shame on me! I started the ambitious block-review series for ALL new horror films that I get to watch in 2014, that I hoped would amout to 100 films by the end of the year and from there I was going to select 13 best titles. But then again, I essentially stopped doing this on September as Fall quarter rolled on and my life again became insanely busy.

An important lesson: full-time teaching job and any ambitious plan for a personal blog do not mix. Or if it is mixed, it’s combustible and will blow up in your face.

But if there is anything I hate more than admission of a failure, it is to leave a plan unfinished and dangling in my conscience. So I am doggedly resuming in April 2015, when I am finally free from the teaching obligations, at least for a few months, the celebration of cheap, grungy, low-budget, found-footage horror films churned out by dozens every month, along with occasional insertions of A-list quality products actually made with some serious money. I decided to forgo the demarcation between 2014 and 2015 entries, and just keep on numbering the titles, whether it actually reaches 100 points or not. I won’t double back and recount the films, but I won’t stress over the issue of whether I choose the best 13 out of both the films watched from the last year’s blog entries (including such memorable titles as Occulus, The Quiet Ones, The Sacrament, Banshee Chapter and Rigor Mortis) and the ones watched from January 1, 2015.

Hey, no one is paying me to do this, and I am quite certain that by the Christmas time of 2015 I will have many, many other important stuff to worry about than this list. So if it gets derailed again then, so be it. Let me worry about it when that happens. Meanwhile, the block-reviews hereby resumes. We start out in April 2015 at the list number 21.

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21.The Devil’s Due (2014- USA, A Davis Entertainment Production. Distributed by Twentieth Century Fox Film Company. Directed by Matt Bettinelli-Olpin, Tyler Gillett). Slickly lensed but empty-headed, The Devil’s Due is produced by 20th Century Fox, cluing us to the fact that it is in a nutshell a retread of the same company’s ’70s cash cow The Omen, with the new twist being its annoying capitulation to the found-footage format. A young couple (Zach Giford and Allison Miller, extremely pretty) travels to a vaguely Haiti-like foreign country but the wife is kidnapped and put through a vaguely Satanic religious ritual, after which she is found to be pregnant, naturally (The ultra-dork husband is entirely unaware of this episode until many months later, even though the whole shebang was recorded incantation-by-incantation on his own camera!). The film is technically polished and mounted with impressive, state-of-the-art special effects by its two directors but otherwise contributes absolutely nothing new to the genre. You know exactly what is going to happen at nearly every turning point, and the length to which the film goes to justify the presence of the amateur camera footage is sometimes unintentionally hilarious. The best scene is where a group of total strangers running into Miller’s character munching on innards of a deer, whereupon they get efficiently and gruesomely dispatched. A little more of these crisp, jolting scenes would have at least injected some verve to the proceedings. ☆☆★★★

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22. Blood Glacier(2013- Austria, An Allegro Films Production. Distributed by IFC Midnight. Directed by Marvin Kren). A huffing-and-puffing Austrian sci-fi horror from Rammbock’s (2010) Marvin Kren, about a misanthropic Alpine guide Janek (Gerhard Liebmann) who, along with a bunch of inane, useless scientists including a terribly annoying former girlfriend (Edita Malovcic), has to deal with red-colored micro-organisms that, like the plant microbes of The Relic (1997), have a capacity to mix and match animal DNAs, creating goofy-looking hybrid monsters. The basic template is The Thing (1981) and, while the film cannot even come close to the latter’s taut atmospherics, it does a fair job of laying about the expected monster mayhem: over-the-top silliness is certainly less bothersome in this context than would be in, say, a found-footage nonsense. And the blood-red blocks of ice adorning the Alpine peaks do induce a certain amount of poetic frisson in the viewers. It’s too bad that its protagonist couple is such sullen, unsympathetic jerks. Among the cast, Brigitte Kren’s (related to the director?) ass-kicking female politico leaves the most positive impression. ☆☆☆

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23.Dead Within (2014-USA, A 3:41AM/This is Just a Test Co-Production. Directed by Ben Wagner). Another one of those extremely low-budget horror film that uses the basic zombie epidemic premise to really head toward a different direction. Banshee Chapter explored the Lovecraftian territory: Dead Within explores paranoia and survivor’s guilt, pushing its main characters– a couple, Mike (Dean Chekvala) and Kimberly (Amy Cale Peterson) to the point where their mental stability is eroded. Even though the movie does include several effective scenes of old-fashioned jolt, along with the extremely uncomfortable scenes of carnage-by-implication (especially a few involving a zombie baby), the movie is essentially a psychodrama, with Mike and Kimberly gradually beginning to mistrust one another. Despite its nothing-budget, the film includes a rather elaborate nightmare-hallucination sequence complete with a decapitated naked woman. It certainly cannot be faulted for not trying hard enough: I liked the movie enough that I desperately wished that it would not end on the utterly, entirely predictable “ambiguous” ending but of course it does. ☆☆☆★

24. Tunnel 3D 터널 (South Korea- 2014, A Filma Pictures/Madang Entertainment/Yeonghwasa Kajok/Blue Eye Pictures Co-Production. Directed by Park Gyoo-taek). For a formal review, check out here at Koreanfilm.org. Despite generally competent technical specs, Tunnel 3D is such a tired re-hash of J-horror conventions that it threatened to put me to sleep quickly. You can’t have any investment in the characters when they act either dumb like a garden slug, or preen and strut like a department store manikin. ☆☆★★

25. The Wicked (South Korea- 2014, A Blue Whale Production Company, Distributed by IndiePlug-Movie Collage. Directed by Yoo Young-seon). For a formal review, check out here at Koreanfilm.org. Invited to the 2015 Udine Far Eastern Film Festival, this low-budget film has its supporters. Certainly the main actress Park Ju-hee is a notable presence, although even her character could have been improved on. In the film, it is never really explained how she could have collected so much knowledge, including some truly private information, about those whom she has run into, for instance.
☆☆★★★

I will be back with short takes and perhaps long-form reviews of more horror films.

December 22, 2014

‘Danger, danger,’ Beeped the Asteriod: THE TERRORNAUTS- DVD Review

Filed under: DVD Reviews — Q @ 6:31 am

THE TERRORNAUTS. 1967. An Amicus Production. United Kingdom, 1 hour 14 minutes (Original release version), 59 minutes (Re-release version). Aspect ratio 1.66:1

Director: Montgomery Tully. Screenplay: John Brunner. Based on the novella “The Wailing Asteroid” by Murray Leinster. Cinematography: Geoffrey Faithfull. Music: Elizabeth Lutyens. Production Designer: Bill Constable. Editor: Peter Musgrave. Producers: Max J. Rosenberg, Milton Subotsky. CAST: Simon Oates (Dr. Joe Burke), Zena Marshall (Sandy Lund), Charles Hawtrey (Joshua Yellowees), Patricia Hayes (Mrs. Jones), Stanley Meadows (Ben Keller), Max Adrian (Dr. Shore), Richard Carpenter (Danny).

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Between anthology horror films such as Dr. Terror’s House of Horrors (1965), The Asylum (1972) and Tales from the Crypt (1972), for which it is best known today, Amicus Productions, like their much-better-known competitor Hammer Films, dabbled in different genres. One such detour is this technically limited but conceptually ambitious and ultimately praise-worthy science fiction yarn.

Adapted surprisingly faithfully from a relatively short but large-scaled SF novel from Murray Leinster, The Terrornauts is a deceptively intelligent variant on the old invaders-from-space tale. Dr. Burke (TV actor Simon Oates), a young scientist, is heading a British observatory engaged in a scaled-down version of the SETI project, that is, trying to capture signals from the intelligent alien life from outer space. It is divulged through flashback that as a child he had a strange encounter with an O-o-part (“Out of place artifact”) dug up by his archeologist uncle, that led to a vivid dream of wandering around on the surface of an alien planet with two moons. When his observatory picks up what sounds like a distress signal from an asteroid, Burke is convinced that his childhood dream is somehow related to this weirdly familiar signal from the space. However, as Burke and his team are becoming aware of the signal, whatever that sent the signal on the asteroid becomes aware of them, and decides to send an interplanetary vehicle to fetch them.

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The Terrornauts, despite its pulpish title that promises some hideous, multi-ocular alien creepies in space suits, may require some patience for those not familiar with serious science fiction. They may be thrown off by the way the main protagonists must exercise their brain muscles to figure out the real purpose of their journey. This thoughtful approach, likely attributable to John Brunner’s (who was himself a Hugo-award-winning SF author) screenplay, may in fact have been responsible for the trimming of an already short film for a re-release (More about this below).

The asteroid’s alien-built space station, while rendered with cheap-looking miniatures in long shots, is impressively designed, with a non-human-form robot in charge who is refreshingly not cute but charming in its streamlined way. A sequence in which Burke, Sandy and co. are being tested, before being permitted to own weapons, features one of the most crazily designed space monsters I have seen, with a diagonal slash of a mouth with red bristles lined up inside, a set of misshapen crab claws, and a mascara-studded huge eye balefully staring out of the abdomen, as if its anatomy has been shuffled randomly before being put together: right out of a ’60s middle-aged British bloke’s dark, subconscious imaginings of an assertive, sexually active female? Nonetheless, the (welcome) message conveyed clearly to the audience in this sequence is that you must ask questions rather than shoot first, even when confronted by a wet-your-pants scary space beastie.

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Exploration of the whys and wherefores of the asteroid’s message nicely builds toward the climactic space battle against the returning invaders, which may be disappointing to the contemporary viewers used to the slick CGI. But then again, unlike, say, classic Star Trek TV series, it is not just all urgent talk while camera’s tilting this way or that: things go seriously kabooey all over the place. Conceptually and in terms of narrative we have little problem following what is going on, as the “good” and “bad” aliens (whose visages are never shown) use completely different styles of technology and design (bad aliens flash lethal beams of destruction, whereas the good guys use reassuringly torpedo-like missiles, and so forth). Contributing enormously to the atmosphere is Elizabeth Lutyens’s (The Skull, The Earth Dies Screaming) pounding orchestral score, punctuated by eerie electronic chirpings and beepings of the alien technology.

The cast is game: Simon Oates, looking like a cross between Patrick Macnee and Gene Barry, is a suitably stalwart but gentlemanly hero. Sandy is played by the dark-haired exotic beauty Zena Marshall, startlingly sexy and totally convincing as a half-Chinese female agent of Dr. No in the ‘63 Bond film. She does briefly play a damsel in distress but otherwise is a no-nonsense heroine, commandeering missile-launching consoles with gusto, side by side with the good astronomer. Charles Hawtrey and Patricia Hayes are comic relief characters, a befuddled solicitor and a landlady siphoned off the earth for a wild ride, thankfully not allowed to overstay their welcome.

The Terrornauts is one of the fondly remembered items from the late-night (black and white) TV viewings of the now-defunct AFKN (American Forces Korean Network) channel, which I was supposedly too young to catch but did anyway. Trying to figure out its rather sophisticated narrative points about the asteroid’s message and the meaning of Dr. Burke’s childhood dream, knowing virtually no English, was in fact a great fun. And that one-eyed space monster is, well, unforgettable, once you had run into it on TV at the impressionable age of ten or so.

DVD Presentation:

Network/Studio Canal Release. PAL. Region 2. Video: 480p Anamorphic Widescreen 1.66:1. Audio: English Mono. No Subtitles. Supplements: Theatrical Release, Theatrical Version Trailer. Release date: March 14, 2014.

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Network has been releasing classic British genre films and TV series for some time now. For some reason they opted to issue The Terrornauts only on DVD, not on Blu Ray. It appears that, compared to, say, Prisoner TV series, this particular vintage title did not possess enough financial clout to have its Eastman color photography restored.

But before we talk about the quality of the visuals at display, I need to bring your attention to the fact that the main title presented here is a drastically cut re-release version which clocks around 58 minutes. Missing is the entire “meandering in the space station” sequence: not only that unique-looking space monster but also the whole exploration of the alien technology by bewildered but curious earthlings have been cut out. Even though, as Network correctly states in the liner notes, “viewers will notice a drop in quality,” I nonetheless recommend you to go directly to the “Special Features” section and click on the “Play Original Theatrical Version” button, and watch that version instead. The so-called re-release version has been put through a form of lobotomy and manages to throw away some of the reasons for this motion picture’s very existence. As I reiterate, the monster, prominently featured in the menu screen, does not even show up in this version!

Having said this, I am obliged to note that the Theatrical Version is marred by a substantial amount of specks, scratches and debris, including green vertical lines that intrude into some scenes, especially in the early part of the film. The re-release version has been polished but its images are also rendered soft and pale, perhaps an outcome of excess digital cleanup. Colors of both versions are greenish and notably faded in earthbound, interior scenes. They fare a bit better in the space station-based sequences, but not significantly so. All in all, do not expect a sterling quality transfer.

The DVDs comes in a thin plastic case with no room for any additional written materials inside, although the DVD cover sheet reproduces on the reverse side an aggressively pulp-ish original poster (“The virgin sacrifice to the gods of a ghastly galaxy!” screams the headline. Well, this is technically not misinformation but…) and five b & w stills.

December 8, 2014

“Well,” Katniss Answers Sardonically, “You better get it on film.”– MOCKINGJAY PART 1 [Film Review]

Filed under: Uncategorized — Q @ 7:52 pm

THE HUNGER GAMES: MOCKINGJAY PART 1. (U.S.A., 2014) A Colorforce/Lionsgate Production, 2 hour 3 minutes, 35mm/Digital Media, Aspect Ratio 2.35:1

Directed by Francis Lawrence. Written by Peter Craig, Danny Strong. Adapted from the novel by Suzanne Collins. Cinematography by Jo Willems. Production Designer Philip Messina. Music by James Newton Howard. CAST: Jennifer Lawrence (Katniss Everdeen), Josh Hutcherson (Peeta Mellark), Donald Sutherland (President Snow), Julianne Moore (President Alma Coin), Philip Seymour Hoffman (Plutarch Heavensbee), Liam Helmsworth (Gale Hawthorne), Woody Harrelson (Haymitch Abernathy), Willow Shields (Primrose Everdeen), Elizabeth Banks (Effie Trinket).

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Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games series is one of the darker and more complex Young Adult series in the market, examining heavy issues such as media manipulation through the dystopian world of Panem, in which twelve districts with varying productive functions and economic inequalities must send two tributes—one boy and one girl—to the Capitol to participate in the annual Hunger Games, a perverse competition where only one can emerge alive. The stakes of the Hunger Games, meant to punish the districts for a past failed rebellion and showcase the insurmountable power of the Capitol, spreads beyond the arena when Katniss Everdeen, a 16 year-old girl from District 12 who volunteers to spare her younger sister’s participation, manages to outsmart the process and in an unprecedented move save herself as well as her male counterpart Peeta. This is the story that the previous two entries– The Hunger Games and Catching Fire– managed to cover so far.

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Mockingjay Part I cannot escape the unfortunate fact that it is a filler movie. But let me state here that I do not mind the split to two parts, however cynical the financial reasons behind that decision might have been, as long as there was a narrative justification. The movie does an adequate job at this, expanding the world of Panem and providing a more introspective examination of trauma, terror, and war. Some critics have slammed this film for being low on action, but this criticism seems to stem from a romantic vision of revolution, rooted in the genealogy of middle school history textbooks that tell of the uncompromising, awe-inspiring badasses who lead the oppressed to an inevitable victory. It is important to note that this kind of heroic narrative is a gross simplification ignoring the complicated realities that ordinary people had to navigate through in order to survive. In truth, revolutions are very messy and terrible, hardly a suitable material for a feel-good Hollywood film—a cursory examination of the ongoing repercussions of the 2011 Egyptian Revolution and the Syrian civil war reveals this.

If anything, Mockingjay Part I should be lauded for presenting the harsh realities of conflict to a Young Adult audience. It is ironic but wonderful that many young Americans will be watching a mainstream big-budget movie about what is essentially a proletarian uprising against a gluttonous upper class. Whether this is intentional or an accident on the part of the filmmakers is, I suppose, up to interpretation.  

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While difficult to watch, the scenes in Mockingjay Part I that subvert the glory of war by revealing its cruelty are well done. The execution of hooded civilians, the bombing of a hospital filled with the wounded and unburied dead, and the piles of skeletons and carbonized bodies following the firebombing of District 12 drive home the terror of a total war. Contrary to the enthusiastic march of “La Marseillaise,” “The Hanging Tree” is a beautifully haunting battle cry even if its original lyrics are rather morbid. Individual traumas are examined as well. If the opening scenes of Catching Fire indicate Katniss’s yearning for peace, then the opening scenes of Mockingjay Part I reveal her complete psychological breakdown. It is perhaps relevant to remind ourselves that Katniss is 17 years old at this point. To demand that she continue to be fierce and independent is to completely ignore the mental, physical, and emotional torment she had to endure by the end of Catching Fire

At its core, the Hunger Games franchise is an examination of the spectacle, or distortions of reality through media. The first film and Catching Fire looked at this through the grotesque pageantry of the Hunger Games. Mockingjay tackles the spectacle with a more political tone by examining war propaganda. Katniss and Peeta are respectively used by the rebellion and the Capitol. Seeing Cressida (Natalie Dormer) forcefully prod for usable footage and Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman) gleefully produce propaganda to propel the rebellion forward is uncomfortable (the effect enhanced by their superb acting), driving home the message that the omnipresent camera of the arena never left Katniss. On the other hand, watching Peeta through Katniss’s eyes (a smart directing choice) is chilling and perhaps allows Josh Hutcherson to give his best and most nuanced performance in his acting career.

The other popular myth that the movie at least attempts to deconstruct is the taint of collaboration. There is a tendency to view collaborators as selfish, immoral people who are just as bad as the deemed monsters they worked with, in contrast to the resistance, always viewed as noble and righteous. It is quite clear that the way Katniss is being used for propaganda, no matter the justification, renders the heads of the rebellion morally suspicious in the viewer’s eyes. The fact that the wily Plutarch Heavensbee sits on the leadership table is an overt indication of this moral ambiguity. From another angle, Katniss’s horrified reaction to District 13’s Pavlovian response to Peeta’s propaganda videos for the Capitol is well-delivered. The movie as well as the book call into question this notion that one would never betray the cause despite the psychological and physical erosion suffered through torture, indoctrination programs and other means of breaking one’s will. The latter aspect is best exemplified by the depiction of Mel Gibson’s William Wallace in Braveheart, refusing to plead for mercy amid torture, instead defiantly shouting “Freedom!” After all, would we call Vietnam veterans imprisoned in Hanoi Hilton, who signed statements acknowledging their actions as war crimes, “collaborators” or “traitors” to the United States? The film should also make us aware that those who label Peeta as such are no more virtuous, representing a hive-like mentality of simplicity and zealousness, while ignoring the complex choices that individuals have to make in order to survive.

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For all the things that Mockingjay Part I does right, there is one major issue that does not sit well with me. Although Katniss’s torn feelings between Peeta and Gale are toned down in this film, the fact that it lingers is problematic because it seems like her impetus to act is dependent on their situation. Yes, Katniss is psychologically fragile, but she is also smart enough to understand her value to the rebellion and make forceful demands. The fact that Katniss does not dwell on the implications of her actions outside of her considerations for Peeta and Gale is disingenuous and undermines her intelligence as a character. However, this was a problem that originated in the source material. It’s just unfortunate that the movie did not deviate from the book in this respect because I think it would make for a much stronger film.

*Guest Reviewer: Catherine Tsai.

September 7, 2014

Cento notti di orrore [One Hundred Nights of Horror]- Horror Cinema Reviews Part 3

Filed under: DVD Reviews, Personal Observations — Q @ 3:54 am

The trip to the Jeju island in August was a marvelous experience. The beauty and resplendence of the nature– waterfalls, fields of orange coral, rocks that look like Titan’s cupcakes– are matched by the amazing delicacies– “black” pork, seafood including twitching abalone, even, er, horse meat. The museums, art galleries and historical sites are of course wonderful, although we had to miss out the Hello Kitty Museum, allegedly the largest single site in the world devoted to… um, Kitty is not exactly a cat, is it? Whatever.

So the August entries are missing. At this rate, I won’t quite be able to fill out the quota for one hundred items by the end of 2014, but oh well, it’s not like anybody is going to fine me for missing it. However, I would not underestimate my own obsession with horror cinema. And worry not, there are absolutely no shortage of the horror films to watch: in South Korea or in the U.S.

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Item fourteen is Haunt (2013- USA: A QED International/Revolver Pictures Production, Director: Mac Carter), another IFC Midnight pickup, this time lensed in Salt Lake City, but pleasantly ahead of the curve in terms of scare tactics, command of visual language and production quality. A reasonably well-handled teen romance angle plus classic haunted house shenanigans maintain one’s interest despite the essentially hoary nature of the setup. The female specter is also well-designed and effectively deployed. The evil-triumphs ending is, like that for Oculus, slightly disappointing (and while not exactly illogical, leaves a lot of narrative debris to be cleaned up after the movie’s ending). I did a double take when I realized that the cool-looking actress who plays the protagonist’s mother turned out to be Ione Skye. Lord, how time flies. ☆☆☆★

Next up is Deep in the Darkness (2014- USA: A Chiller Network Films/Synthetic Cinema International Production, Distributed by Universal Pictures. Director: Colin Theys). A New York City doctor (Sean Patrick Thomas) relocates to a rural location with his family. His practice thrives, his neighbors, including an old man (Dean Stockwell) with a deformed wife, are nice, and everything seems to be hunkey-dorey, that is, until the old man tells him about the “isolates” who live deep in the woods and demand live sacrifices from the townspeople once in a while. A traditionalist spook show, complete with a surprisingly old-fashioned score from Matthew Llewellyn, the kind that blares horns whenever something “shocking” is about to happen. The movie is certainly preferable to some of the more ridiculous found-footage horror pics of recent years, but the direction is just too TV-sized and by-the-numbers. The monsters are also derivative of the mound-dwelling mutants in The New Daughter (2009), although the denouement harkens back to the schlocky spirit of Roger Corman’s New World drive-in features. Well cast, although the (good) idea of a black protagonist stuck in a white rural town with hideous secrets could have been developed further. ☆☆☆

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Rigor Mortis 殭屍 (2013- Hong Kong: A Kudos Film Incorporated Production, International Distribution by Fortissimo Films. Director: Juno Mak 麥浚龍)A suicidal actor (Chin Siu-Ho) moves into a bizarrely dilapidated apartment, populated by a zombie/vampire hunter chef (Anthony Chan), an insane beggar woman (Kara Wai), her little albino son (Morris Ho) and an old seamstress Aunt Mai (Nina Paw). When Aunt Mai’s elderly husband Tung (Richard Ng) dies from a suspicious-looking fall, she consults an exorcist/black magician Gau (Chung Fat), which turns her husband into the fabled “hopping zombie-vampire (jiang-shi).” The Cantonpop star Juno Mak, striking as a revenge-obsessed street vendor in Wong Ching-po’s harrowing Revenge, A Love Story (2010), brings a keen eye for visual language and a character-centered sensibility to his take on an old Hong Kong horror monster, more often than not milked for humor. Produced by Ju-on’s Shimizu Takashi (whose influence is evident in the film’s subsidiary monster, a pair of ghastly twin sister ghosts with cascading black hairs), the story drags in part but we always remain invested in the characters and their emotional tribulations. Nina Paw as Aunt Mai is particularly effective as a kindly old woman whose love for her husband (and fear of isolation) propels her to commit progressively awful acts of cruelty and heartlessness (Did Mak consult Bong Jun-ho’s Mother?).

Advertised as a martial arts-action film, Rigor Mortis is anything but, told with a deliberate pace and coming with almost metaphysically surreal set pieces as well as an An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge-like coda that could leave some viewers befuddled, scratching their heads. The film will likely divide its viewers according to their expectations: it does not show much fidelity to hyper-kinetic Hong Kong horror of ’70s and ’80s it superficially makes references to, so be warned if that’s what you are looking for. Instead, director Mak takes the native cinematic tropes and styles and sensibilities of J- and K-horror, puts them all in a blender and manages to concoct his own gateau délicieux out of the mix: crisp, not overcooked, affecting but not soggy. ☆☆☆★★

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The Quiet Ones (2013- United Kingdom: A Hammer Films/Traveling Picture Show/Midfield Films Production, Distributed by Lionsgate Films. Director: John Pogue) is another competent but not overwhelming supernatural horror from the resuscitated Hammer Studio. The film is based on a strange, real-life episode from the Canadian annals of parapsychological investigation, in which a group of researchers decided to “invent” a ghost named Philip, only to have this fake spirit create havoc. Now that story would have made an intriguingly innovative film. Unfortunately,The Quiet Ones scraps that idea and cooks up a very ’70s hokey-poke plot, complete with a demon-worshiping cult and a paranormal investigation team armed with an 8mm camera, among other gadgets.

The grad student research team is led by an arrogant, manipulative scientist (Jared Harris) in an isolated house, focused on the poltergeist and pyrokinetic activities taking place around pretty but troubled Jane (Olivia Cooke, well cast and very good). The film is sometimes reminiscent of an old episode of a BBC TV drama (not a bad thing in itself), and the found-footage stylistics rear its head in a square (1.33:1 ratio) screen that stands for Brian’s (Sam Claflin) documentary footage, which contrasts with the rather avant-garde and New Century sound design. The Quiet Ones is pretty good, but suffers from a screenplay that seems to add more twists than really necessary (Cooke almost manages to sell the duality of her character between “Evey” and “Jane”) and a couple of less-than-impressive CGI effects, made to look worse by having been inserted into the rigorously ’70s-style visual universe. ☆☆☆★

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Wer (2013- USA-Romania: A Film District/Incentive Films Entertainment/Sierra Pictures/Prototype Production/Room 101/Bell & Peterman Films Production. Director: William Brent Bell), like one of those vampire films in which human characters never once use the word “vampire,” is a werewolf movie that the word “werewolf” is uttered only once, at the very end of the film. Actually, it is set in France so it’s technically a loup-garou. The film has an interesting introductory setup: an excessively hirsute Eastern European hunk (Brian Scott O’Connor) is arrested for murdering and partially eating an American tourist and his child, and agrees to retain the defense counsel of a devoted human rights lawyer (A. J. Cook). She in turn solicits help from her former boyfriend, an expert on wild animals (Simon Quatermane), who is expected to provide a testimony that the killing could not possibly have been done by human hands (and teeth).

Again unfortunately, this intriguingly rational-procedural approach to the werewolf story is abandoned midway as the hunk simply goes on a rampage and the idea of Perry-Mason-meets-Larry-Talbot genre hybrid is thrown out the window. What remains is a standard werewolf action, albeit excitingly done. The half-hearted effort by William Brent Bell’s screenplay to suggest some kind of scientific explanation for the loup-garou falls flat and is largely forgotten by the film’s climax. I am glad the werewolf sub-genre is proving to be as durable as the vampire one, although Wer is primarily distinguished by its conscious desire not to rely on special makeup effects in its transformation or rampage sequences. ☆☆☆

Filmed on location at Bogota, Colombia, one is tempted to read some kind of political allegory into The Damned (2013- USA, Colombia: An IM Global/Five 7 Media/Launchpad Production. Distributed by IFC Midnight. Director: Victor Garcia), which stars American actors but is strongly Latin-American flavored. The set-up is not particularly original, to say the least. It starts out like the classic Twilight Zone episode “Howling Man,” written by Charles Beaumont, as a bickering group of family and friends are stranded in an abandoned Colombian hotel, whose proprietor is keeping a little girl locked in the basement. Of course, we immediately suspect the girl’s true identity but then the film moves to the Fallen (1998) territory, without the latter’s wry wit and the reflective attitude toward men’s evil nature, with a dash of Michael Reeve’s The She Beast (1966) mixed in. The film could either have been more phlegmatic and philosophical or, conversely, wilder and woolier. As it stands, it is neither hot nor cold, despite some effective set pieces. ☆☆☆

Okay, now we are at number twenty. A few more scare flicks to go. Next installment may finally include brand-new Korean horror films The Tunnel and The Navigator.

July 21, 2014

Cento notti di orrore [One Hundred Nights of Horror]- Horror Cinema Reviews Part 2

Filed under: DVD Reviews, Personal Observations — Q @ 2:59 pm

Resuming where I have left off last time with the Cento notti di orrore project, watching one hundred “new” horror films in the year 2014, to eventually select the 13 best-of list: We are now moving onto the lucky number seven. Up to here are the films I have watched up to, hmm, early June or so. Saint Anthony of Parking Spaces, I was really busy in the spring quarter.

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In late April I watched, let’s see… oh, here we have a self-conscious, almost tongue-in-cheek throwback to candy-colored, deliberately politically incorrect ’70s exploitation film as well as anything-goes ’80s slasher film “aesthetics.” Nurse (2013- USA: A Lions Gate Entertainment Production. Director: Douglas Aarniokoski)– presented theatrically in 3-D, no less– seems to have rubbed a lot of people in the wrong way, but it does score points for hutzpah. Director Aarniokoski gleefully doles out the knowingly schlocky exploitation content– mini-skirted nurses dispensing lethal injections from neon-colored hypodermic needles, lesbian bed scenes with a G-string underwear thrown about, a panting-mutt goofball performance from Judd Nelson (who’s actually game and does a better job at this sort of thing than, say, Christopher Atkins) as a lecherous doctor eventually carved up by Abby, the film’s serial murderess cum sexy nurse, and so forth. I appreciate what Aarniokoski is getting at, and some of his visual gags (such as the darn cool main title design) are inspired, but I also felt that he tries a little too hard to sell his wares. More problematically, Abby’s character feels like a sketch rather than a full-blown construct. Paz de la Huerta’s performance seems to be also splitting the viewers pro and con: I don’t think she has done a bad job, but her character is not nearly as compelling (or funny, for that matter) as she probably appeared on the screenplay page. Perhaps addition of a genuine sense of humor, rather than strained un-PC paroxysms that are “supposed to be funny,” might have helped her render Abby’s character more memorable. ☆☆☆

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Banshee Chapter (2013- Germany, USA: A Sunchaser Entertainment/Before The Door Pictures/Favorite Films Production, Distributed by XLRator Media. Director: Blair Erickson) is another micro-budget found-footage film. This time, an attractive, British-accented journalist Anne (Katia Winter) is recording her investigation of the disappearance of her college friend James (Michael McMillian), who has left a camcoder footage in which he ingests a US-government-created mind-altering drug called DMT-19, and apparently transforms into… a zombie? An alien-human hybrid? She hitches up with a counterculture writer Blackburn (Ted Levine, Silence of the Lambs) who had originally supplied James with a batch of the drug. Things go rapidly batshit-weird from there, as Blackburn’s girlfriend Callie (Jenny Gabrielle) is transformed in the same way James was. Anne eventually figures out that the drug changes one’s brain chemistry to be receptive to the signals sent by extra-dimensional monsters, a la Resonators in Lovecraft’s From Beyond. And they are determined to wear our bodies like boxing gloves to cause untold mayhem…

Banshee Chapter is akin to Shimizu Takashi’s Ju-on, in the sense that the movie is not particularly attractive, constructed in a threadbare manner on one or two effective ideas, but, it must be admitted, is darn scary. The budget is pathetically low to the point that the found-footage conceit is abandoned midway (most of what Anne goes through is filmed in a cinema verité style by “God’s perspective and not by her camera), but nonetheless the whole thing remains effective. The slack-jawed makeup of the “possessed” should be for intents and purposes a laugh riot but is actually seriously disturbing when sparely glimpsed in the context of the film. The best way to describe it is a minimalist version of Lucio Fulci’s The Beyond, although in substance much closer to Lovecraft than the Fulci extravaganza. ☆☆☆★

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One of the most controversial horror films released to the general public in 2014, The Sacrament (2013- USA: A Worldview-Arcade Pictures Production, Distributed by Magnolia Pictures. Director: Ti West) is a difficult movie to judge fairly. Patrick (Kentucker Audley), a fashion photographer, agrees to an assignment of conducting an interview with a commune leader known only as Father (Gene Jones), under whose benevolent spell his long-lost and drug-addict sister Caroline (Amy Seimetz) seems to have fallen. At first, the community seems to be perfectly in order: but when one mother tries to secretly smuggle her child out of the compound with the documentary team, Patrick and his crew begin to suspect not everything is what it seems at Eden Parish. West’s directorial acumen is in display throughout this tightly constructed mockumentary. He carefully builds up anxiety and suspense levels, never resorting to loud bangs or jump-on-your-back visuals to keep you interested.

The Sacrament might well be tremendously disturbing and absorbing to those who have never heard of the Jonestown Massacre (non-American viewers, for one). However, I and many others who have, through various news reports, documentary programs and (admittedly more melodramatic) feature films such as Rene Cardona Jr.’s Guyana: Crime of the Century [1979], will not be able to shake off a debilitating sense of deja vu and, worse, pointlessness. In the end, the whole enterprise, expertly put together as it is, feels rather hollow, like a deed turned in too late, as Japanese merchants used to say. If West was trying to prove the point that “a real-life tragedy created by blind faiths is much scarier than fictional supernatural shenanigans” with The Sacrament, I must say he succeeded, except that, I should note, that’s a rather self-defeating attitude for a maker of horror film to assume. ☆☆☆

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Allegedly well-received at Sundance Film Festival and widely praised by critics is Great Britain’s In Fear (2013- United Kingdom: An Anton Capital Entertainment/Lovefilm/Big Talk Production, Distributed by Studio Canal/4Films/Anchor Bay Films. Director: Jeremy Lovering). Typical of the recent trends in the British horror, it explores anthropocentric horrors based on the active will to harm others, addressing the anxieties of social disintegration facing the country (Brits no longer need a nasty zombie epidemic or such fictional device to imagine their population bashing each other’s head out: sheer hatred of your neighbors is potent enough, thank you). The minimalist setup follows a young couple (Ian De Caestecker and Alice Englert) driving to a resort hotel in the countryside. Once they arrive at the vicinity, however, not only are they having trouble locating the so-called hotel (the gas is running out, the terrain is muddy, and the sun is setting), but are running into evidence of somebody (or somebodies) tracking them down.

A heavy-breathing psychodrama disguised as a random-disaster-falls-on-innocent-vacationers “rural” horror, In Fear starts out like a variant of Matheson/Spielberg’s Duel but turns into something else entirely. Intense and well-mounted, there is still little innovative in either conception or execution of the film: you can see the denouement from a mile away. Among the movies with a similar setup (an uneasy couple traveling in an automobile), I would yet prefer Winter Chill with Emily Blunt, which had the advantage of more sympathetic characters and less indulgence in “tasteful ambivalence.” I admit that its Harold Pinter-esque acting set pieces are of high quality, but the movie isn’t really thrilling nor scary, just depressing. Banshee Chapter can paint circles around this film in terms of the booga-booga factor. ☆☆☆

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Surprise, surprise: one of the hoariest clichés of Gothic horror, a haunted furniture, in fact a haunted mirror at that, receives an exceedingly clever treatment in the hands of Mike Flanagan (director of raw but intriguing Absentia [2011]) in Oculus (2014- USA: A Intrepid Pictures/Blumhouse Pictures/WWE Studios, Distributed by Relativity Media). Kaylie (Dr. Who’s Amy Pond, Karen Gillan), who works at an antique auction house, tells his younger brother Tim (Brenton Thwaites) that she wants to prove that their father, who shot their mother and killed himself, was in fact goaded by an evil presence residing in an archaic mirror. Sneaking the artifact out of the auction house, she has set up a Rube Goldberg device that threatens to shatter the mirror unless it reveals its true colors to the siblings, and presumably to their camcoders. Of course, the mirror strikes back, by manipulating the sibling’s perception of time and space, which it does devilishly well.

Oculus is an ingenious horror film that pits human protagonists and the supernatural evil within the framework of something like a board game. Director-writer Flanagan then uses the film’s flashback structure to slowly undermine the viewer’s own certainties about the narrative content and character motivation. By the second half, the film turns almost experimental, as the flashbacks to Kaylie and Tim’s childhood selves become conflated with their adult “realities” to such an extent that the latter are unconsciously replicating their childhood “mistakes.” The film’s morale conveyed through another downbeat ending seems to be “Leave enough alone those things not meant to be stirred up,” but I found this denouement disappointingly conventional. I think Oculus would have been an enduring masterpiece had it introduced just one more tweak. Visually the film is somewhat dull-looking, although the reflected-mirror eyeballs of the apparitions conjured by the mirror-demon are a nice, eerie idea, especially combined with their vaguely smirking, rather than tormented, countenances. ☆☆☆★★

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Almost Human (2013- USA: A Channel 83/Ambrosio-Delmenico Co-Production, Distributed by IFC Midnight. Director: Joe Begos) is a Rhode Island regional production: it’s very energetic but cannot quite overcome fatally unoriginal premise and execution. A hunky lumberjack (I am guessing?) played by Josh Ethier is abducted by aliens and comes back two years later, and guess what, he has even less personality than before. Who would have thought? His wimpy friend (Graham Skipper) and beautiful wife (Vanessa Leigh) don’t know how to respond. Soon, the lumberjack is orally impregnating a bunch of guys and gals stashed in warehouse. And yes, he has ungodly designs on his pretty wife.

The movie samples Fire in the Sky, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, The Hidden and even X-tro, among many other (better) genre films. Director Joe Begos has zero notion of subtlety but, given the threadbare production quality, has the right attitude to just forge ahead and put in as many bash-’em-ups as he could find excuses to. ☆☆★★★

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Next installment will be written in Seoul, Korea. Already watched and waiting in the cue are Evidence, Haunt, Chiller TV’s Deep in the Darkness and Juno Mak’s exciting feature debut Rigor Mortis.

July 2, 2014

Cento notti di orrore [One Hundred Nights of Horror]- Horror Cinema Reviews Part 1

Filed under: DVD Reviews, Personal Observations — Q @ 5:42 pm

The cinematic art itself may be biting the dust worldwide, as the endless parade of Marvel and DC superheroes colonize Hollywood, the indie cinema is selling out, film studies graduate students are watching source materials via Netflix streaming in their spare time left over from decoding Lacan and Deleuze, and Lars von Trier is lauded as world’s greatest filmmaker. But hey, horror genre cinema is alive and well. Even if future consumers of cinema would have to watch their “movies” on 6-inch screens attached to their wrist-phones, you can guarantee there will be horror films, about haunted Google glasses, your latest wonder drug with a side effect of turning you into a purple-skinned carnivore zombie (“Your loved ones suddenly crave meat!!”), even maybe a teenage Virgin-shuttle astronaut vampire, who loves inhaling his blood off air globule by floating globule.

Watching horror films as they come, although not totally indiscriminately, has been one of the less mentionable-in-polite-company cultural habits of mine. Oh, I agree, the prissy attitude some assume toward the horror genre is totally hypocritical. After all, what dumbass English lit major would publicly state that Edgar Allan Poe is inferior to, say, Herman Melville, because the former wrote, you know, morbid stories about the supernatural? My closest friends and loved ones can certainly testify to my ongoing and never-flagging love of the genre. My wife, Angela, remembers me sauntering off to catch the third installment of Hellraiser playing at a Somerville theater all by myself, in between caffeine-induced bouts of paper-writing and seminar preparation. I have learned to control myself (relatively speaking), but in my youthful days a dinner conversation could easily slide off to a loving description of the effects of a “Stonehenge chip” embedded inside the Silver Shamrock Halloween mask in Season of the Witch… you get the idea.

Now I am enjoying motion pictures on a vastly enlarged platform– Netflix, Hulu Plus, Vudu, M-GO, iTunes & Apple TV, local video stores and, yes, occasional forays into local theaters– and horror genre is far from shrinking in proportion and importance in terms of my movie-going life. It certainly remains an important sector in the archival Blu Rays and DVDs I purchase– especially among the cinema of ’70s and ’80s– but even among relatively new films, its power and influence have not diminished. Now whether there are more good horror films these days than there used to be in ’80s, or even ten years ago: that’s another set of ballgame. Has the quality horror cinema gone the ways of civil discourse in American politics and VHS tapes? Or are we in fact facing another renaissance of cheap but ingenious and creative horror cinema?

So I had this idea of watching minimum 100 horror films this year, regardless of national origins or years of production, the only condition being that I watch them in a proper venue (correct aspect ratio, preferably HD presentation) and I haven’t laid my eyes on them before. And based on these, compile a reasonably persuasive 13 best-of list at the beginning of 2015. Call it a homage to horror cinema from an old fan. In terms of Korean cinema, I am politically more invested in seeing a truly excellent SF film (a goal partially met in 2013 with the release of Bong Joon-ho’s majestic Snowpiercer), but that’s for the future happiness of South Koreans. For the future happiness and philosophical growth of the mankind (I hope you do not take my pronouncements as juvenile humor or even misplaced irony, thus revealing your hideous cultural prejudices against the genre: I will remind you again, Edgar Allan Poe did HORROR. Mary Shelley did HORROR. Dostoevsky did HORROR. Goethe did HORROR. The truly great masters ALL did horror), we could still do much more with the horror.

Shall we begin with Dark Touch (2013- Ireland/Sweden/France, An Ex Nihilio/Element Pictures/Filmgate-Film I Väst Co-Production. Director: Marina De Van)? A young girl’s family is violently destroyed by what appears to be a supernatural force. She (Missy Keating) is placed under a socially responsible neighbor couple’s care, but it becomes clear that whatever destroyed her parents has followed her into the new home. Even though partly financed by Sweden and France, the film has a very strong Irish flavor, and shares the theme of child (physical) abuse and societal suppression of its horrors with Daisy Chain (2008). Dark Touch is a bit more fanciful and aggressive, with overall effective performances from the adults and young Missy Keating. But the movie suffers from the same problem with those horror opuses that feature demonic children that at the same time try to sell the criticism of mistreatment of children: the conscientious and well-meant message gets neutralized by horrible actions of the children, especially in this movie a wholesale destruction of a primary school. The only movie that has been totally successful in pulling this off is still Narciso Ibanez Serrador’s Who Can Kill A Child? Not uninteresting, but gets ☆☆☆ (60 points– for those unfamiliar with the Futaba Jūzaburō system of star ratings: a white star counts for 20 points, a black one 5 points).

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From Mexico hails Here Comes the Devil/Ahi va el diablo (2013- Mexico, A Dark Sky-MPI Media Group/Morbido Films/Santo de Fe Films Co-Production. Director: Adrian Garcia Bogliano). In a deserted location near Tijuana, two young children, brother and sister, enter a cave and come out… subtly different. Believing that they are victims of sex crimes, their parents go to extreme lengths to protect them, but they soon turn their father and mother against each other. The movie is so-so as a horror thriller, with what appears to be ironic deployment of zooms, psychedelic montages and other old exploitation film conventions (Nothing really taboo-breaking is shown, however). What is at least intriguing is a rather uncomfortable subtext of children discovering sex as manipulative social acts, which seem to underlie the behavior of the parents (they talk about their experiences of teenage groping as a way to arouse themselves during copulation) as much as those of the children. Again not uninteresting, but could have been a lot more effective. The child actors could have been better cast, too. ☆☆☆, as well.

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I had a high expectation for Patrick: Evil Awakens (2013- Australia, A Screen Australia/F. G. Film Productions/Film Victoria/Screen Queensland/Head Gear Films/Metrol Technology Film with additional funds from Melbourne International Film Festival. Director: Mark Hartley), a remake of one of the better Ozploitation films, Patrick (1978), directed by Richard Franklin before he was recruited to helm Psycho II (1983). The result was, unfortunately, disappointing. The cast, headed by Charles Dance (Alien³) and Rachel Griffiths (TV series Six Feet Under), is game, but the direction is devoid of any effort to mount a basic level of suspense, and cheapens everything by employing cut-rate CGI effects way too often. The head nurse’s relationship with the psychotic psychic Patrick remains underdeveloped: in this film Patrick is simply a thug through and through, paralyzed or not, and unlike the original’s Susan Penhaligon character, Griffiths comes off as obtuse to the point of exasperation. Production quality is not bad for a low-budget horror film, but I can give it only ☆☆★★★.

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Afflicted (2013- Canada/USA, An Automatik/IM Global/Telefilm Canada Co-Production. Directors: Derek Lee, Clif Prowse) is the first on this list of many, many horror outings that make use out of the “found footage” aesthetics (… some of the examples make me doubt whether we can apply this term but anyway). I must say, I did not expect Afflicted to be this much creative in its use of handheld camerawork. It actually features some pretty impressive and elaborate (and non-gross) special effects, seamlessly worked into jiggly camcoder footage. The film also generates a lot of suspense in the first 30 minutes or so as the protagonist (co-director Derek Lee) is afflicted with a mysterious disease that changes his body metabolism and then endows him with select superpowers… but once it settles down to, as it inevitably had to, one particular sub-genre of horror, it unfortunately can only do so much. However, I was overall impressed by how tightly and logically the whole thing was put together by its two directors (Clif Prowse, the other director, plays the “documentarian” in the film too), given budget constraints. It’s not scary at all but entertaining in a cockeyed way, realism be damned, closer to Josh Trank’s Chronicle(2012) in spirit than other found-footage horror films. ☆☆☆★

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Once in a while, thankfully not that often, I have a craving for food like chilli-basted pork kidneys: likewise I would occasionally do things like actually paying money to check out, ur, monstrously cheesy Asylum Entertainment productions or SyFy Channel features. Unfortunately I was so busy this winter and spring I missed out the eyeball-straining wonders such as Big Ass Spiders and Sharktopus sequels. I finally got around to watch one of these, Beasts of The Bering Sea a.k.a. Bering Sea Beast (2013- USA, An Active Films/Vesuvius Productions Film. Director: Don E. FauntLeRoy). The poverty-row production has its charms, certainly not taking itself too seriously, but I wish its CGI monsters were frankly dopier-looking. They are rather unimaginatively drawn (computer-graphically) as rayfish with jackal snouts. ☆☆★★

A squirmingly unpleasant premise is explored in Contracted (2013- USA, A Boulder Light Pictures/Southern Fried Films Production. Director: Eric England). Samantha (Najarra Townsend) has a one-night fling with a guy she meets at a party. The sex is painful rather than pleasurable, and from the next day on she begins to develop icky symptoms that progressively turn her into… you know from the yee-eww poster that it’s not a vampire she is becoming. Undoubtedly effective in some passages, director Eric England (Madison County, 2011) does not quite make up his mind whether to keep Contracted on the path of a feminist parable, an extended sick joke about the L.A. dating scene, or an outright horror. Also like helmers of many, many other recent horror films, he does not know how to end the movie properly. Townsend is game for all kinds of torment, special effects makeup and otherwise, and ended up winning my admiration. ☆☆☆

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That’s it for Part 1. Next time, more found footage mayhem in Ti West’s controversial The Sacrament and Banshee Chapter, the post-modern (?) nurse-ploitation extravaganza Nurse, and more.

May 25, 2014

WARRIORS OF THE RAINBOW: SEEDIQ BALE- [Guest Film Review]*

Filed under: DVD Reviews — Q @ 4:46 pm

WARRIORS OF THE RAINBOW: SEEDIQ BALE 赛德克·巴莱 (Taiwan, 2011). A ARS Film Production/Central Motion Pictures Production. Aspect ratio 2.35:1, International Cut 2 hour 34 minutes, Director’s Cut 4 hour 36 minutes.

Written and directed by Wei Te-sheng, 魏德聖 Cinematography: Chin Ting-chang, Art Direction: Taneda Yohei, Special Effects Superviser: Edward Chi-yun Yi, Music: Ricky Ho. CAST: Lin Ching-tai (Adult Mona Rudao) 林慶台, Ma Chih-Tsiang/Umin Boya 馬志翔 (Temu Walis), Ando Masanobu 安藤政信 (Kojima), Hsu Yi-Fan/Bokeh Kosang 徐詣帆(Dakis), Vivian Tsu (Hatsuko), Da-ching (Boy Mona Rudao), Pawan Nawi (Chief Rudao), Matsumoto Minoru (Yoshimura).

After the wildly successful release of Cape No.7 (2008), Taiwanese director Wei Te-Sheng filmed Warriors of the Rainbow: Seediq Bale(read “See-dikh Bahl-leh”), a project that was inspired by Qiu Ruolung’s comic book. Split into two parts with a running time of 4 ½ hours for the director’s cut (this is the version reviewed here), Seediq Bale focuses on the life of Seediq tribe leader Mona Rudao, from his first encounter with Japanese forces in 1895 and then through the Wushe (Musha) Incident 霧社事件 in 1930, an uprising in which over 300 aborigines from various tribes rebelled against Japanese colonial authorities by briefly taking over Wushe Village, after killing over 130 Japanese during a sports festival. The success of the aborigines in taking over Wushe and in warding off Japanese reinforcements through a guerrilla campaign in the mountains prompted a crisis amongst the shocked colonial authorities, who had considered Wushe a model village for its modernization campaigns and had failed to conceive that the aborigines were capable of such action. The crisis culminated in the use of tear gas and retaliatory annihilation— other tribes were recruited and rewarded for headhunting the rebels, including non-combatant women and children— to quell the uprising.

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–Angry and sad eyes of young Mona

While there were many leaders of the uprising, the film solely focuses on Mona Rudao (played by newcomers Da Ching and Lin Ching-tai as the young and old versions, respectively), the chief of the Seediq tribe. Mona is an uncompromising and imposing figure, stubbornly proud of his aboriginal heritage. This is exemplified by the opening scenes of his first headhunt, where he decapitates two members of the rival Toda tribe, steals their boar in the process, and as a result is bestowed via facial tattoos the dignity of being a “Seediq Bale,” or real man.+

+There are four meanings on what constitutes a “Seediq Bale”: 1) Someone belonging to the in-group; 2) A local person, born and bred; 3) A man who headhunted while defending his territory; 4) and a person who follows Gaya, the ancestral teachings, social norms, and ritual practices which maintain the relationship between man and cosmos. See Darryl Sterk, “Nativization and Foreignization in the Translation of ‘Seediq Bale,’” Savage Minds, December 31, 2011.

For aborigine men, headhunting in the defense of territory was a method to become a Seediq Bale, which earned them the facial tattoos necessary to cross the rainbow bridge to the afterlife. Exuberant at the results of his hunt, Mona, in his 15 years young arrogance, takes any opportunity to taunt the rival tribe for their failures, prompting Temu Walis, whose tribe was humiliated by Mona, to wage a personal vendetta. With the arrival of the Japanese, however, Mona finds his manhood—the very essence of his honor—eroding away.

The reasons for aboriginal resentment towards the Japanese are clearly outlined in the first part of the film, subtitled The Sun Flag. They are forced to work for little to no wages without any regard for personal safety for the camphor industry, whose activity destroyed their traditional hunting grounds. Aborigine children, despite receiving free education under the Japanese, are routinely beaten in school. Even the aborigines who have assimilated are aware of the power dynamics. Dakis Nomin (who receives the Japanese name Hanaoka Ichiro), the most complex character of the film, becomes a Japanese police officer and supports Japanese modernization, but is also acutely aware that his Japanese peers still view him as a “savage” regardless of his efforts. Nevertheless, he holds onto a gloomy optimism. “We’ve lived like this for 20 years. Another 20 years won’t be impossible.” Dakis/Hanaoka confides to his also assimilated brother, “By the time our children grow up, maybe we will have changed forever the savage image of ours.” Yet, Dakis/Hanaoka, once rejected by his aborigine peers for his choice to assimilate, nonetheless deliberately refuses to inform on his tribal peers and allows the uprising to take place.

When Yoshimura, an unfortunate caricature of the unpleasant, bumbling colonial officer, disrespects aborigine culture by rejecting goodwill offers to share wine at a wedding ceremony, aborigine anger, like a long dormant volcano, suddenly explodes. Mona mobilizes the aborigines in the massacre of all Japanese civilians and authority figures at Sports Day. The results are cruel and inglorious. Pawan Nawi, a pre-teen Seediq boy who is often beaten in school, exacts revenge and kills an entire room of Japanese children (this highly disturbing scene is missing in the shorter cut). If there is anything that makes Mona a hero in this context, it is his unrestrained pursuit for the restoration of his dignity and of his tribe’s spirit in the face of systemic discrimination, not anything specifically sympathetic he does. Here, Director Wei’s vision to tell as accurately and realistically as possible what was then a little-known fact of the uprising deserves credit.

The second part of the film, The Rainbow Bridge, is mostly boiled down to a 300-esque feast of explosions and decapitations, problematically glorifying the actions of Mona and the Seediqs as an honorable last stand. It is clear from the various scenes of violence and suffering that the Seediq attack on Wushe and the Japanese reprisals against the Seediq are cruel, and that people on both sides of the conflict have acted in inhumane ways.

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-Dakis Nomin confronts the elder Mona

The slanted realism in the second half takes away from the message that the Wushe Incident should be viewed as a complex tragedy, simplifies the nuances of inter-tribal and identity conflicts built up in the first half of the film, and ends up portraying the Seediq as “noble savages,” whose actions cannot necessarily be condoned by today’s moral standards, but are nevertheless meant to evoke tearful admiration. There are, however, several somber scenes in the second part that drive home the human cost of the conflict. The Seediq women, who are instructed to take refuge in a neighboring enclave to preserve the bloodline, choose to commit mass suicide to avoid becoming a burden, a decision that their pre-teen children realize when they are told to transport their remaining food supplies to the men. The children, despite their insistence to Mona to be treated as men following the initial massacre at Wushe, completely break down as they beg their mothers to stay. One of the Seediq men captured is viciously attacked by dogs and dies in prison, beaten to death. Mona, increasingly aware of the desperate situation, kills the remaining female members of his family (which is historically unsupported and perhaps culturally inaccurate) to avoid the humiliation of capture. From historical standpoint, these scenes are a better reflection of the actual trauma of the uprising and a more accurate portrayal of a conflicted aborigine memory of Mona as neither villain nor hero.

Yet, Wei’s portrayal of Mona is one of the biggest flaws of the film. Despite the graphic and realistic portrayal of violence, this realism does not translate into a complex evaluation of Mona’s contested character. Based on the graphic depictions of the Wushe massacre and the battles between the Japanese and the aborigines, it is clear that the event should be regarded as a tragedy and that Mona bears a great deal of responsibility for the bloodshed. However, Wei insists that Mona be glorified as a nationalist hero like, for instance, William Wallace in Braveheart (a film that, like Mel Gibson’s another historical project The Patriot, induces groans of frustration and disgust among the knowledgeable historians) as a leader who holds no moral qualms for his actions in order to liberate the spirit of his people. In reality, Mona’s actions and motivations are much more complicated and he is not regarded as a hero by all aborigines. Mona is reviled by some aborigine tribes such as the Toda for his participation in an even more historically obscure event called the Qingshan Incident 青山事件,++ in which Mona led Japanese forces in a massacre of a branch of an Atayal tribe just a year before the Wushe Incident.

++This was mentioned by several Taiwanese news outlets in conjuction with the controversies generated by the movie’s portrayal of its hero. Historians have acknowledged that the massacre took place, but note that this was part of the Japanese colonial tactic to pit tribes against each other. See “Seediq controversy highlights that life isn’t black and white.” September 14, 2011. China Post.

From a storytelling standpoint, these ambiguities of history are perhaps difficult to fit all in (in a film that is already running 4 ½ hours and examines an event that was generally unknown to the public), but they are important to keep in mind if the movies want to create a serious dialogue with the past.

Aside from the plot, the film’s visuals are extremely beautiful (much credit goes to Cinematographer Chin Ting-chang). The vast majority of the movie was shot in natural locations, a challenge in itself given the fickle climate of the mountain regions, but the results are stunning. There is an aura of romantic mysticism around the mountains. Aboriginal singing in the background reflect both a sense of vivacity and mourning. The fact that the majority of the actors and extras are actually aborigines lend authenticity to the proceedings. The obviousness of some CGI effects (such as very fake-looking hunted animals) does distract from the natural beauty of the scenes at times but these are minor details that do not detract from the overall feel and look of the movie.

While the battle scenes are a tad too long and the expositions are a tad too many, Seediq Bale has brought critical renewal of interest in Taiwanese aborigine culture and history that has been largely ignored or expropriated to serve political needs of other parties rather than aborigines themselves. Some recent politicians, for example, champion the Wushe uprising as a heroic rebellion against Taiwan’s enemies, but the truth of the event, as I have pointed out above, is much more complicated and tragic (See Chuang Chi-ting, “Wushe memories highlight modern dilemmas.” Taipei Times. October 27, 2000). While there are the aforementioned flaws in the movie, from an aesthetic and storytelling standpoint, the 4 ½ hour version of the film is an excellent foray into appreciating Taiwan’s natural beauty, understanding aborigine culture and identity conflicts, and instigating a popular re-evaluation of the little-known Wushe Incident.

This version of the film, rather than the truncated international version, will be remembered in Taiwanese cinematic history as one of the most important, ambitious historical epics ever made. For anyone interested in learning more about Taiwanese history and doubtful about the potential of Taiwan’s film industry to turn out an epic-scale motion picture, Seediq Bale is a must-see.

* This review was written by Catherine Tsai, a UC Davis senior who has just finished an honors thesis “The Temple Reorganization Movement in Colonial Period Taiwan,” for History Department. Catherine will return to offer her takes on contemporary and classic Sinophone cinema in the near future!

May 19, 2014

GODZILLA (2014): A Respectful Reboot Kicks Some Serious Monster Butts [Film Review]

Filed under: Uncategorized — Q @ 7:57 pm

GODZILLA. 2014. A Warner Brothers Release, A Legendary Pictures/ Disruption Entertainment/Toho Company Co-Production. U.S.A- Japan, 2 hour 3 minutes. 2.35:1 aspect ratio.

Director: Gareth Edwards. Written by: Max Borenstein, Dave Callaham, David S. Goyer. Cinematography: Seamus McGarvey. Executive Producers: Okuhira Kenji, Alex Garcia, Banno Yoshimitsu. Editor: Bob Ducsay. Music: Alexandre Desplat. Production Design: Owen Paterson. Supervising Art Director: Grant Van Der Slagt. Stunt Coordinator: Layton Morrison, John Stoneham, Jr. Main Title Design: David Badounts, Matthew Normand. Special Effects: Amalgamated Dynamics, WETA Digital, Gener8, Double Negative, MPC, The Third Floor, StereoD, Imaginarium Studios, Scanline VFX.

CAST: Aaron Taylor-Johnson (Ford Brody), Elizabeth Olsen (Elle Brody), Bryan Cranston (Joe Brody), Watanabe Ken (Dr. Serizawa), David Strathairn (Admiral Stenz), Juliette Binoche (Sandra Brody), Richard T. Jones (Captain Hampton), Sally Hawkins (Dr. Graham), Takarada Akira.

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The freshly minted, 2014 US-Japan co-production Godzilla is, like the 1954 black and white original, neither a great science fiction nor an artistic masterpiece, although Japanese film critics by now freely acknowledge the latter’s superior classic status, arguably much more readily so than American critics do with, say, King Kong or James Whale’s Frankenstein. What the former is, though, a highly respectful, almost deferential, not to say reverent, treatment of the one of the global pop culture icons of 20th century that is also a direct progeny of the problematic denouement to the Pacific War and the ensuing Atomic Age.

As a longtime monster movie fan, and a specialist in modern Japanese history, I could pick apart the stuff that does not work in Gareth Edward’s Godzilla, beginning with its rather awkward conceptualization of Dr. Serizawa (the original’s great mad scientist-hero), stiff and unconvincing recreation of the Japanese cultural milieu, and overtly functional expository dialogue (to be sure, a common complaint about any modern science fiction-disaster movie), although I cannot accept the criticism that the actors are treated like wall decoration. The “human story” element is purposefully dialed down to the scale of powerless ordinary people gazing up at gargantuan natural disasters, as appropriate it should be. This is not a freaking Amazing Spider-Man, folks. It’s GODZILLA, for God’s sakes. You don’t want some wisecracking military hardass or a teenage heroine with a psychic connection to Godzy’s brain. And within these two-dimensional roles, Elizabeth Olsen, Bryan Cranston and others do their job adequately.

Edwards, instead of paying lip-services to the Japanese original, actually closely follows it as a template, and boy, this guy knows how to wrangle monsters. When he is filming Godzilla he treats him like a great star, sparely, effectively. Remember, in the 1954 original, which clocks at a bit less than1 hour and 30 minutes, Godzilla makes a full appearance at around 45 minutes point: and that’s what happens in the new version as well. As for Godzy’s design, it is clearly meant to remind the viewers of all those charming rubber suits that Japanese stuntmen wore, more than vaguely human/simian in posture and outlook, including a bit of awkwardness when he goes bipedal, as if he is at any moment ready to topple forward. Covered by black-green scales (visible for the first time) and regarding you with tiny, glaring yellow cat eyes, this Godzy is compact, mean-looking yet majestic, more of a UFC fighter than a WWF show-off. In the screening I attended, Edward’s impeccable direction of the big guy’s action, especially use of his signature “weapon,” brought up loud cheers and applause from the audience.

His enemies, the M.U.T.O (Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organisms) creatures, share the main protagonist’s lean, functional design and are believably integrated into their scene’s given environment– most notably Hawaiian mountains and San Francisco Chinatown. They might appear dull and colorless compared to the elaborately designed Japanese beasties like Biollante (from Godzilla vs. Biollante [1989]) but their gravitas more than compensates. Yes, the scientific explanation for their existence and re-emergence is as scientifically ridiculous as the notion that a radiation-exposed lizard can grow up to be a hundred times its size, but even that is a faithful variation on the classic Japanese kaiju eiga plot, rather cleverly rendering the big guy’s moral stance vis-à-vis human civilization neutral and taking him out of the Good Guy vs. Bad Guy quagmire that marred the Toho ‘80s and ‘90s series. Someone’s clearly done the homework.

As an effort to reignite a dormant franchise, Godzilla is a great success. Aside from those who find monster movies of this kind inherently silly and pointless (Those folks, do go enjoy and spend your bytes writing about Nymphomaniac… life must be good for you!), many fans of Big God, especially the austere, black-and-white incarnation seen in the 1954 original, myself included, will love this particular outing.

April 2, 2014

THE LAUGHING POLICEMAN [Blu Ray Review]

Filed under: DVD Reviews — Q @ 4:40 pm

THE LAUGHING POLICEMAN. A Twentieth-Century Fox Film Production. U.S. 1 hour 52 minutes, 1973. Directed and Produced by Stuart Rosenberg. Written by Thomas Rickman, based on the novel by Per Wahlöö and Maj Sjöwall. Cinematography: David M. Walsh. Music: Charles Fox. Cast: Walter Matthau (Sargent Jake Martin), Bruce Dern (Inspector Leo Larsen), Louis Gossett Jr. (Inspector Larrimore), Anthony Zerbe (Lieutenant Steiner), Albert Paulsen (Henry Camerero), Cathy Lee Crosby (Kay Butler), Joanna Cassidy (Monica), Val Avery (Inspector Pappas), Mario Gallo (Boddy Mow), Clifton James (Jim Maloney), Frances Lee McCain (Prostitute), David Moody (Pimp).

Long-time mystery fans might recall that Stieg Larsson’s Millennium trilogy was not the only Swedish genre fiction to have hit it big with North American readership. Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö, a common-law wife and husband team, were prolific mystery writers who wrote ten police procedurals starring Superintendent Martin Beck from 1965 to 1975. Their fourth novel, The Laughing Policeman, actually won Edgar Award given by the Mystery Writers of America, and served as a basis for this sole American cinematic adaptation (as of yet) of the pair’s literary output. The novel is a taut, phlegmatic mystery in the classic sense, with a genuine plot twist at the end. The film version written by Thomas Rickman (Coal Miner’s Daughter) and directed by Stuart Rosenberg, however, is a loosely structured, very ’70s-style concoction that, despite the eyebrow-raising level of violence, occasionally threatens to sputter to a halt.

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There is no real urgency to Martin’s (called “Jake” Martin in the movie) investigation of the mass murder of a public transit bus passengers, who gradually suspects that the heinous crime was designed to cover up the intended murder of one of the passengers, his partner who was looking into a long-unsolved murder case of a prostitute. Rosenberg, who displayed uncommon sensitivity in directing an eclectic cast in The Voyage of the Damned (1976), seems to be neither interested in psychological insights nor in genre thrills. Like many urban crime films of the similar vintage, the movie is primarily held together by life-like interactions of the cops, petty criminals and various professionals involved in the public service sector, essayed by veteran and up-and-coming actors, although none of the roles are particularly distinguished enough to leave indelible impressions in the minds of the viewers.

Walter Matthau cuts a fine figure as a hard-boiled, gum-chewing senior cop, but as a character his Martin is something of a sourpuss (roughly manhandling his dead partner’s woman, played by Cathy Lee Crosby, and sullenly withstanding harangues from his neurotic superior Anthony Zerbe). His borderline-racist New York cop in Taking of Pelham One, Two, Three (1974), for instance, was a much better developed character. Bruce Dern is also underused: he is shown to engage in “routine” activities like forcing a stool pigeon into a urinal in a police bathroom but much of this feels tacked on to give his character a veneer of naturalism. Leaving a strong impression in a brief role is the outrageously beautiful Joanna Cassidy as a nurse hit upon by Dern’s detective: Louis Gossett Jr. has a nice turn before his breakout role in TV’s Roots, although, again, his character merely sits in the sideline in regards to the main plot.

The film was obviously made by those with a progressive outlook, what with the strong position given to Gossett’s black detective, yet its portrayal of San Francisco’s gay subculture seems rather perfunctory (added just because the setting is San Francisco?) as well as ambivalent. On the one hand, Matthau’s Sargent Martin has no trouble shooting down Leo’s suggestion that the blackmail based on a character’s homosexuality might have been the reason for the culprit’s desperate act of mass murder: he quips, “’Fruiters’ now flaunt their [sexuality], rather than keeping it in the closet.” At the same time, the culprit’s “sexually perverse” orientation is sort of floated in the background, as if that is a motivation enough for his original murder of a prostitute, which is never really explicated to the audience’s satisfaction.

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David M. Walsh’s location shooting captures the beautiful city in a pleasant, naturalistic light, punctuated by gritty scenes of violence, autopsy and confrontations in public settings. To give credit where it is due, the film does include several, excitingly edited chase sequences that makes good use out of narrow, steep roads climbing up and down dem hills of San Francisco. With these many talented actors in the stew, we never entirely lose interest in the movie, but it does not quite become compelling or special either.

Blue Ray Presentation:

MASSENMORD IN SAN FRANCISCO [Massacre in San Francisco]. Region Free. Blu Ray, Carol Media-Twentieth-Century Fox Home Entertainment. Anamorphic Widescreen 1.85:1. English/German Dolby Digital Mono. No Subtitles. Supplement: Theatrical Trailer, German language biographies of Walter Matthau, Bruce Dern and Louis Gossett Jr. Release Date: September 21, 2012.

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The Laughing Policeman receives a Region Free Blu Ray release from Germany’s Carol Media, that have also released minor but interesting US titles such as The Android (with Klaus Kinski), The Naked Face and Mambo Kings in Blu Ray. The visual quality is okay to good, not top-notch, with the elements in a reasonable but not pristine shape. Color timing appears to be correct: complexion tends to run a bit on the ruddy side but otherwise the filmic texture is fine, except when the scenes featuring actresses are pictured in soft-focus. The Dolby Digital mono is serviceable, with a typical ’70s American film ambience. I sampled German audio track out of curiosity: other than the fact that voice actors dubbing Matthau and Dern sound completely unlike them, the dubbing crew seem to be working extremely hard to approximate the flow of colloquial English. English subtitles are sorely missed.

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Even though the Blu Ray cover (and all retailer specs) lists the running time as 1 hour and 45 minutes, the actual film in the Blu Ray clicks at 1 hour 52 minutes, identical to the IMDB listing. Including this sloppy mistake, the Blu Ray package is far from attractive, with Bruce Dern’s name not even showing up in the marquee for some reason. However, for fans of the film, the added resolution and improved visuals and audio of a Blu Ray should be sufficiently attractive.

*Blu Ray copy courtesy of DaaVeeDee.com

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March 4, 2014

R.I.P. Michael Shea, 1946-2014

Filed under: Personal Observations — Q @ 6:52 pm

I was shocked and disheartened to learn that SF, fantasy and horror author and one of the foremost practitioners of the New Cthulhu Mythos stories, Michael Shea, has unexpectedly passed away. It comes as a blow, since Mr. Shea was located in Northern California and I was hoping that one day I could get to meet him in person… even perhaps starting the process of introducing his works into Korean language.

Michael Shea’s short story collection Polyphemus, published in 1987 from the fabled Arkham House, is one of the most dog-eared and tattered copies of English-language fiction I still own, along with such genre classics as John Shirley’s In Darkness Waiting, T.E.D. Klein’s Dark Gods and Robert Charles Wilson’s The Perseids and Other Stories. I have read every story included in collection many, many times but “The Autopsy,” one of the greatest horror-SF short stories ever written, holds a special place in my psyche… its utterly inimitable combination of luridly sophisticated, hypnotically florid prose, sharp, taut characterizations and ultimately humane perspective is thoroughly addictive. I have returned to the story time and again, dozens and scores of times… maybe really even more than a hundred times… to savor Shea’s virtuoso verbal orchestration of a cold, demonic alien mind sparring with a world-weary American professional who find solace and pleasure in the acts of dissecting corpses.

He found his parochial pity for Earth alone stretched to the transstellar scope this traveler commanded, to the whole cosmic trash yard with its bulldozed multitudes of corpses; galactic wheels of carnage– stars, planets with their most majestic generations– all trash, cracked bones and foul rags that pooled, settled, reconcatenated in futile symmetries gravid with new multitudes of briefly animate trash…

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It is even more heartbreaking to think that Mr. Shea has just finished the second installment, Attack at Sunrise, of what promised to be at least a great trilogy following in the steps of The Extra, an outrageously entertaining hybrid of ’50s monster-movie mayhem and the corporate Hollywood satire. Now we will never read its possible third installment… which could have been called Burn, Hollywood, Burn, I would like to think. Probably I will miss his supremely witty yet authentically grandiose Cthulhu Mythos stories most. In the end, though, he has left behind a sizable legacy of numerous short stories, the Nifft the Lean saga and other novels, all of which I will continue to treasure as long as my brain still manages to decode English language writing. Goodbye, Mr. Shea, thank you for giving this Korean fan years of reading pleasure.