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.

January 3, 2014

My Favorite DVDs and Blu Rays of 2013

Filed under: DVD Reviews, Personal Observations — Q @ 7:57 pm

That’s it, another year now passing beyond our grasp and becoming a fodder for the famished Langoliers… 2013 was in many ways an unusually active year for me, leading to some notable and hugely enjoyable achievements, albeit with minor irritations and setbacks, too. It would have been really nice if I had the foresight to schedule my second book manuscript project so that I would have a rough draft around this time of the year, but I can live with the delay… and who knows, some good might come out of it as well. The Big Medical Crisis of the 2011-2012 winter season is still casting a shadow over my life but overall things are moving forward. Youngmi’s parents are settling down in Oakland, Yunie is enthusiastically playing piano for us whenever we talk on Skype, my friends, colleagues and former students are generous and responsive as ever. Really, I can’t complain too loudly. Maybe about the idiot politicians in the U.S. (The Tea Party and…), Japan (Abe Shinzo and…) and Korea (The ruling party and…), but hey, I bet ancient Egyptians complained about their idiot politicians too at the end of their calendar year.

Korean cinema outwardly regained its box office muscles in 2013 although the industry’s major structural problems– most importantly the overwhelming dominance of a few blockbusters of theater screens that leave a vast majority of motion pictures barely able to recoup their production costs– have not been fixed. Meanwhile, cinema-watching on the home front is continuing the slow and incremental process of conversion toward streaming/downloading, although as should be obvious from the present best-of-2013 list, Blu Rays have clearly become the dominant mode in which I watch and collect motion pictures.

Even though Blu Ray as an optic disc format is still subject to occasional hiccups, labels such as Shout! Factory (and its horror-SF subsidiary, Scream Factory), Olive Films, Twilight Times, Arrow Video, British Film Institute’s Flipside (both in England) and, of course, Criterion have firmly entrenched themselves in the practice of supplying great, under-appreciated, rarely seen and indescribably weird motion pictures of the past to consumers like myself with a reliable regularity. Old collector’s habits die hard, and I still find myself mostly using Netflix and Hulu Plus for “fast food” consumption of the low-budget horror cinema, and waiting for Criterion to release their amazing inventory of Janus Cinema titles stocked in Hulu Plus as Blu Rays, and if not, as Eclipse DVDs. As streaming/downloading services always “reserving the right” to withdraw their products at any time, this collector cannot quite shake the feeling of distrust.

The upshot is that it was about three times more difficult for me to generate the top ten, even when I cheated and extended the number to top twelve (and cheated further and mixed in a few different items for Korean and English-language lists), for Blu Rays than for DVDs and streamed/downloaded films combined. In fact, even though the number of DVDs purchased in 2013 were only slightly smaller than those of Blu Rays (not counting individual films in monster collections like the 25-disc Zatoichi), the pool of candidates for top ten has shrunken even further compared to the last year. The reason is very simple: the desirable movies are now directly coming out to Blu Ray. Now I am picking up the Blu Rays of the films that I have only read about or was completely unaware of, in addition to crowd-pleasers or old masterpieces that I had missed out or avoided (due to bad transfer, for instance) as DVD editions. Conversely, the improved resolution of the Blu Ray format has added unmistakable layers of value to select classics, whether they are silent films nearly one century old, or British or Italian ’70s horror cinema with wacked-out lighting schemes. We are now preparing to overhaul the home theater system in the living room, complete with the addition of a subwoofer and rear speakers (I have been using an old 5-speaker system in my study for reviewing DVDs and Blu Rays all these years), and it is bloody obvious that this setup will stack the deck even further in favor of Blu Rays. Such is the price of progress we must pay.

As before, the list reflects the discs that grabbed my attention and gave me viewing pleasures like no other in 2013, not a collection of the “best” films (however you may define the “best”) or highest-quality packages. Some are total, sight-unseen discoveries, a few are re-visits that have obliterated the memories of previous viewings, and yet others are oh-my-god-I-can’t-believe-I-can-watch-this-again, nostalgic jolts from the past. This of course means that some absolutely brilliant masterpieces of world cinema in unbelievably beautiful, majestic hi-def presentations did not make the list (not surprisingly, many releases from Criterion: Nashville, Badlands, City Lights and Medium Cool, to name only a tiny fraction). I am not ashamed to admit that this list essentially exists to gratify my collector’s ego: I can only bow in a humble gratitude if anyone finds this list helpful in his or her own search for the interesting, weird and wonderful works of cinema.

Shall we, then, move onto the list? First there are ten DVDs, or more accurately nine DVDs and one streamed film, and then we move onto twelve Blu Rays. I usually upload a parallel Korean-language list on Djunaboard with a slightly different content but since it is regrettably under repair from malware/virus attack, I will do that at M’s Desk, my alternate blog site. [Update: Djunaboard is back! It is off and running as of January 23 and I have already had a couple of inquiries about the 2013 best-of list… so the Korean-language list will be up at Djunaboard as planned, sometime in early February]

10. Marine Boy: The Complete First Season (Warner Archive Collection, Region 1)

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Well, some of you may roll your eyes at the mention of Marine Boy, or yet others (especially young ‘uns) might tilt their heads in befuddlement, but no matter. The series, produced by Japan Tele-Cartoons (Terebi Dōga) in 1965-1966, 1969-1971 and picked up by Seven Arts-Warner Brothers for North American broadcasting, is one of the key missing links between Saturday morning cartoon animation of the Hanna-Barbera variety and the Japanese anime. Because its character and plots were designed with export to the English-speaking market in mind, they have flavors distinct from the classic Japanese anime made in the similar time frame but obviously geared for the domestic viewers, including Astro Boy. You would think Warner Archive’s VOD of Marine Boy season one will reveal limitations of relatively stiff, old-style animation but mostly it shows off its relentlessly fast-faced action, charmingly juvenile yet cool design and sometimes intimidatingly surrealistic or hallucinogenic explosions of (supposedly) underwater color, as various sea monsters— an anthropophagous gigantic jellyfish, a large clamshell with hypnotic power of suggestion and a swarm of noxious red starfish, among others— attack the Ocean Patrol and its top agent, Marine Boy!

9. Body Melt: Katarina’s Nightmare Theater Edition (Scorpion Releasing, Region 1)

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This iconic ‘80s splatter-horror from New Zealand directed by Philip Brophy, an experimental musician, Melbourne-based scholar of Japanese animation, film music scores and sound design (and an author of an excellent early article on Korean horror cinema, to boot) and cinema studies professor at Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology, had previously been available from Vanguard in a disappointing 4:3 transfer, but Scorpion’s new edition is considerably superior with popping colors, properly matted to 1.78:1. Often compared to Peter Jackson’s early splatterfests Bad Taste and Dead-Alive, Brophy’s mordantly witty (and genuinely gross) satire is a unique (unborn, melted) baby of its own. It no doubt left indelible impressions on the young minds who first stumbled onto it as a VHS copy carried in the neighborhood rental shop.

8. Kim Kee-duk Collection (Blue Kino- Korean Film Archive, Region Free)

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No, not that troubled auteur Kim Ki-duk of the Bad Guy and Pieta fame, but Kim Kee-duk, a 1934-born classic-era director perhaps best known to American film fans as the director of Yongary: The Monster from the Deep (1967), available in a spanking, clean transfer in Region 1, with the Herman Cohen-produced Konga (1961) as an MGM Midnight Movie double bill. Another must-have for the fans of Korean cinema, this Korean Archive DVD collection puts together four films from different genres— a youth melodrama, a war film, a Cold War human drama and a proto-feminist romantic comedy— all robust commercial successes in their time and perhaps more representative of what the ‘60s Korean theatergoers truly enjoyed than the works of his internationally better-known contemporaries such as Lee Man-hee or Im Kwon-taek. And like so many other classic Korean cinema, these films are very much capable of sneaking up on and slapping us silly for underestimating their emotional and intellectual prowess: just go through the stunningly taut scenes of dismantling anti-personnel mines in Five Marines (1961), or the climactic torrent of existential despair overwhelming three main characters in North and South (1965), that clearly anticipates the similar sentiment that dominates the ending of The Front Line (2012), and you will see what I mean.

7. The Facts of Murder/Il Maledetto imbroglio (Mya Communications, Region 1)

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This was a big surprise, a disc that I purchased without knowing anything about it, simply trusting in the names of Pietro Germi and Claudia Cardinale (one of those European stars who seem to have dominated the Korean TV screens of ‘60s and ‘70s yet probably virtually unknown to North American viewers of today). It handsomely paid off: turned out that I had seen The Facts of Murder a million years ago on Korean TV with the (probably Japanese-imposed) title The Detective. It even features that ultra-familiar tune Sinno me moro composed by, who else, Carlo Rustichelli. A fabulous murder-mystery with a biting dash of social commentary, all filmed in super-attractive black-and-white: c’e nulla di non amare, no? We can always use more releases of classic Italian cinema.

6. The Machine That Kills Bad People/La Macchina Amazzacattivi (Criterion Collection, Hulu Plus Streaming)

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The one entry here from the pool of films not released on DVDs or Blu Rays as far as I know (at least in North America) but I was able to catch on a streaming service is, what d’ya know, another early ‘60s Italian classic. This one is just as unexpected: a comic fable directed in a strikingly Neo-Realist manner by the great Roberto Rossellini. Set in an immediate-postwar Southern Italian island, this altogether delightful fairy tale is about a local photographer who receives a blessing (or is it?) from St. Andrew, that one of his cameras be endowed with the power to kill off anyone… all he has to do is to take a picture of the mark’s photo again, and he or she simply freezes forever in whatever pose assumed in the original photo. Initially horrified by his newfound ability, it doesn’t take long for the photographer to learn to use it to “cleanse” the city of such social ills as usury, hooliganism and corruption of public officials. Digitally restored in 2011 by Cineteca Bologna and The Immagine Ritrovata Laboratory, this Criterion presentation is simply amazing, even as a streaming file (it helps that our new fortified internet mechanisms protect the connection from breaking down as much as they can). If you think a “social-realist surrealist fable” makes no sense either as an English phrase or a description of any work of art, you gotta watch this baby, signore.

5. Columbia Pictures Film Noir Classic Collection IX (TCM Vault Collection/The Film Foundation, Region 1)

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The steady flow of classic film noir in affordable DVD collections has not been severed thanks to the Turner Classic Movies, Sony Pictures (owners of the Columbia Films) and now the Film Foundation (and that means the films come with introductions by Martin Scorsese). This fourth Columbia Pictures film noir collection descends further down into the territory of acute paranoia and (anti-Communist) hysteria, Joseph H. Lewis’s So Dark the Night (1946) and Gordon Douglas’s Walk a Crooked Mile (1948) being standouts. But as has been the case with the previous film noir collections, even when a movie is frankly less than memorable— as is the case with Walk East on Beacon! (1952)— there is always something instructive or interesting to discover in these classics of bygone Hollywood. My only complaint with the package is about the bizarre disc-holding method used by the foldout plastic case: if in doubt, can we just use sleeves?

4. Glenn Ford Undercover Crimes Collection (TCM Vault Collection/Sony Pictures Home Entertainment, Region 1)

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And speaking of TCM vault collection, this bundle of a wide genre of films starring the inimitable Glenn Ford beat the film noir collection to punch. Glenn Ford is one classic Hollywood actor whose filmography has now become as familiar as that of Michael Caine or Christian Bale thanks to the DVD revolution, especially the WAC and other MOD releases of classic oaters and programmers, and not just prestigious Vincent Minnelli projects like The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (1962). Ford is alternately charming, mysterious and engrossing in a remarkable array of characterizations showcased here, sweaty and wracked with self-doubt in Convicted (1950), beautifully playing against the mountainous Broderick Crawford, irascible yet irritatingly attractive in Framed (1947), and so on. A true star-actor, conveying so much through mere flicks of his eyes.

3. Masaki Kobayashi against the System (Eclipse Series No. 38, Criterion Collection, Region 1)

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This is a no-brainer choice of the year for the best DVD list, and would have taken the top spot had it not been two other discs below. It is rather problematic that in English-language classic Japanese films are still mostly known through the genre of jidai-geki (period piece), otherwise (often erroneously) known as “samurai films.” Okamoto Kihachi, to give but one example, is primarily known to North American viewers via his bakumatsu (end of the Tokugawa rule) swordplay films like Samurai Assassin (1965) and The Sword of Doom (1966), excellent as they are, and his far more controversial and personal works such as the Desperado Outpost (1960) series, The Elegant Life of Mr. Eburi Man (1963) and Human Bullet (1968) are nowhere to be seen in Region 1. Kobayashi Masaki, the director of two world-class masterpieces Harakiri (1962) and The Human Condition (1959-1961), suffers from the same problem, but Criterion’s Eclipse series has gone a long way in rectifying that situation. Herewith are Kobayashi’s more political and socially conscious takes on contemporary Japan, Black River (1956) and The Inheritance (1962) rivaling any Euro-American film that deal with the same themes of alienation and material greed. Yet, the true revelation here may be I Will Buy You (1956), a calmly condemnatory exploration of the baseball recruitment game that manages to expose the inherent corruption of the system without demonizing its players… given the incredible popularity of the sports in Japan, I am rightly flabbergasted that Kobayashi was able to take such a merciless stab at it. Perhaps it was made before the baseball really took off as a national sport. Otherwise, I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that he received death threats from irate fans over this motion picture.

2. Ikariye XB-1 (Second Run, PAL- Region Free)

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Holy Crab Nebula! This film was for long years one of the holy grails of the ardent classic SF cinema fans this side of (now-no-longer-extant) Czechoslovakia. It even played at Pucheon Fantastic Film Festival but it just so happened I missed it. And now, it is available through an English-friendly Region 2 DVD from Second Run, the specialist in Eastern European cinema. Ikarie XB-1, loosely based on Stanislaw Lem’s Magellan Cloud, is a brilliantly designed and executed science fiction masterpiece, way ahead of American movies in the same time period (1963!) both conceptually and aesthetically. It is quite obvious that the film directly influenced Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey but it is even more obvious that TV shows Star Trek and Space 1999 blatantly ripped off this relatively short (82 minutes) film’s every single plot point—a birth of a “space child,” twentieth-century spaceship drifting and encountering a future expedition, the “black sun,” et cetera— for their individual episodes. A truly pioneering work of science fiction cinema that harkens back to the foundational spirit of space exploration and scientific investigation without a shred of concession to space-opera dick-waving or militaristic hardware fetishism, Ikarie XB-1 belongs to any serious SF fan’s film library.

1. The Beast with Five Fingers (Warner Archive Collection, Region 1)

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And my favorite DVD number one spot goes to one of the last remarkable horror films from the classical Hollywood period, starring who else, Peter Lorre. While not nearly as deliriously uncanny as the latter’s early starring vehicle with a similar theme, Mad Love (1931), The Beast with Five Fingers is a genuinely scary confection that, in a harmonious conflation of superb special effects and Lorre’s extremely convincing bug-eyed performance, scales the very heights of Gothic menace. Ach, wir vermissen dich, Peter!

OK, now I am moving toward Blu Rays… and for beginners I must confess that more than twenty well-qualified discs, which might have made the list in previous years, had to be dropped for frankly nonsensical, or otherwise deeply personal reasons, and it pains to enumerate them, not to mention this list is already getting alarmingly long. Heaven knows I would love to get to review them all, one by one! It will probably require another, no, make it two more, entire lifetime to do justice to all these great works of cinematic art. Ahh…

12. Bakumatsu Taiyōden [The Sun-Tribe Myth from the Bakumatsu Era] (Eureka!/Masters of Cinema, Region B)

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One of the more popular classic Japanese films that lack obvious elements of appeal to the “Western” viewers, Bakumatsu taiyōden is supposedly a jidai-geki parody of the “Sun Tribe” films (many of them starring the megastar Ishihara Yūjirō and penned by Yūjirō’s brother, Ishihara Shintarō, the President Wannabe of Japan– eh? Yeah, I am being sarcastic) but is in fact much more than that: taking a burlesque comedy that unabashedly reproduces all manners of melodramatic and comic cliches dating back from the Edo period, director Kawashima Yūzō infuses the busy proceedings with the subtle political and social commentary as well as a surprising degree of pathos, perfectly captured in Frankie Sakai’s lively but tough performance. A scoundrel and grifter who sees an opportunity for profit in every squabble or instance of hypocrisy, Sakai’s Saheiji is a commoner protagonist who holds his own against thuggish young samurai activists led by Takasugi Shinsaku (Ishihara), plotting to burn down a foreigner’s residence: yet he is also afflicted with consumption and is anticipating an early death. This HD transfer from Masters of Cinema is a product of Shochiku’s 100-year anniversary digital restoration in collaboration with Asahi Newspaper, perhaps not as sparkling as some Region 1 restoration jobs but many degrees ahead of the previous video incarnations.

11. Runaway Train (Arrow Video, Region B)

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Arrow Video has been steadily releasing top-ranked, highly desirable genre and cult films– Mario Bavas, Dario Argentos, George Romeros, Brian De Palmas– in jam-packed, special edition Blu Rays coming in distinctive, white cardboard boxes adorned with freshly commissioned cover arts: their Region B titles have sometimes proven to be distinctively superior to (comparatively more expensive) Region A releases, as was the case with, say, De Palma’s The Fury. Andrei Konchalovsky’s Runaway Train was the notorious Golan-Globus Cannon Film’s best shot at the Oscar prestige, adopted from a Kurosawa Akira screenplay and featuring two of the career-best performances from John Voight and Eric Roberts. Not a usual Arrow Video title, for sure, but despite its sometimes annoying ’80s aesthetics (including a dated electronic score from the usually talented Trevor Jones), the movie is a great, existentialist action film ripe for re-appreciation. The label puts together a superlative package with customary gusto, packing in brand-new, substantive interviews with Konchalovsky, Voight, Roberts and other participants.

10. The Ballad of Narayama [1958] (Criterion Collection, Region A)

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Kinoshita Keisuke’s 1958 adaptation of Fukazawa Shichiro’s short story is perhaps not as well known outside Japan as Imamura Shohei’s 1983 Canne Prize winner, but it is equally emotional, mysterious, beautiful and, in the end, unbelievably moving. Kinoshita uses boldy theatrical techniques that highlight artifice of the background but instead of making the film “artistic” in the conventional sense, they render it mythical and timeless. As a historian I cannot but find problems with Kinoshita’s “feminism” that insists on glorifying the self-sacrifice of the Japanese women (especially more so in the depiction of their suffering due to wartime or postwar poverty), but Ballad of Narayama, like a judo master who bests a much younger and muscular opponent, renders such ideological objections completely irrelevant. Criterion’s Blu Ray is a revelation in its visual splendor of the landscape and sets as well as in its heartbreaking depictions of hopping black crows and scattered white bones.

9. Schalcken The Painter (British Film Institute, Flipside Series, Region Free)

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For the sheer number of eyeball-popping-out-of-skull discoveries of the “B” or “obscure” cinema in English language, the BFI’s Flipside series has no parallel. In this year, too, they released so many indescribable rare items in Blu Ray-DVD double format, no less, and John Krish’s Capture or Sax Logan’s forgotten TV horror Sleepwalker might have easily qualified for the list… except for Schalcken The Painter, a BBC TV episode made for an anthology series Omnibus. Originally filmed in 16mm, the short but feature-length (one hour and ten minutes) film is reconstructed in ridiculously gorgeous hi-def presentation that brings to life the carefully mounted visuals that marvelously replicates the painting style of Dutch masters. Based on the genuinely disturbing short story written by Sheridan Le Fanu, who invents a quasi-supernatural, cruel tragedy regarding the real-life Dutch painter Godfried Shalcken, that purports to explain some of the just-noticeably disturbing elements in the latter’s paintings. Beautiful, sinister and harrowing, it is like a super-artistic episode of Night Gallery pulled from broadcasting for being too disturbing.

8. The Thief of Baghdad [1924] (Cohen Media Group, Region Free)

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There is so much unbridled magic in this silent version of The Thief of Baghdad, from unbelievably athletic Douglas Fairbanks who seems to defy laws of gravity right in front of our eyes, to William Cameron Menzies’s fabulous Art Deco production design, to outlandish yet matter-of-fact unfolding of special effects– flying carpets, flame-breathing dragons, a charmingly “water-free” undersea duel with what the heck is that, a sea spider?, culminating in an instant materialization of thousands of soldiers, armed and ready to bound for an assault! Even the stereotypically “Oriental” villains, played by the Japanese émigre Kamiyama Sōjin (1884-1954) and the Chinese-American star Anna May Wong, are given moments of dignity and far more complex (and attractive) characters than Asian villains in today’s Hollywood blockbusters. Watching The Thief of Baghdad with fresh eyes makes one seriously wonder: what is it that we have lost from cinema since we stopped making silent films?

7. The Man Who Knew Too Much [1934] (Criterion Collection, Region A)

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A thoroughly delightful early Alfred Hitchcock from 1934: watching this film back to back with Fritz Lang’s Cloak and Dagger (1946), another espionage thriller that could have easily made the list, I could not help draw comparison between Hitch and Lang. But one thing is clear: Fritz Lang, or any other film director, for that matter, could never have made The Man Who Knew Too Much the way Hitchcock have done here, mixing in the dastardly yet charming humor with the genuinely unnerving set-pieces marinated with suspense and a real sense of peril. Topping all that is Peter Lorre’s larger-than-life villain with a shock of (radioactive?) white hair, looking straight into the camera in a mixture of serpentine insinuation and knife-point rage.

6. Things to Come (Criterion Collection, Region A)

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Near the top of the list of classic SF movies that I have missed out in younger days, H. G. Well’s Things to Come (1936) is indeed a great film– a work so much bound to its time, yet looking so resolutely ahead into the future, one cannot help but be inspired by its vision, even when one notice– as we do in Griffith’s Intolerance (See below)– the more rational, technocratic and tolerant future may not be entirely free from its own self-contradictions (Yes, I am well aware of its dangerously totalitarian overtones, a hallmark of nearly all idealistic science fiction… and no, I don’t find the movie preachy at all). Along with Alexander Korda’s adaptation of Wells’s The Man Who Could Work Miracles (1936, available through Hulu Plus), Things to Come showcases genre film-making at its pinnacle of intellectual prowess, equally convincing in realistic depiction of human communities reduced to medieval social norms as well as of high-tech machinery operating on a transcendental scale.

5. The Mummy: 3Disc Blu Ray-DVD Combo Set (Hammer/ICON Home Entertainment, Region B)

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Another British masterpiece, this one an acknowledged classic, The Mummy, with its dreamy, romantic fever-dream atmosphere, is my all-time favorite Hammer film and certainly the most beautiful motion picture the studio has ever made. Hammer through Lionsgate released The Horror of Dracula (1958) on Blu Ray this year, and it received a lion’s share of publicity among horror film collectors due to the reinstatement of a few extra minutes of gore and Lee’s final performance culled from the so-called “Japanese print,” literally a stuff of too-good-to-be-true rumors until recently, but I found its color timing very bluish and cold– much like Kino Lorber’s The Whip and the Body Blu Ray, which otherwise would easily have made into the top ten list. Thankfully, their Mummy Blu Ray retains the rich (and slightly soft) color palette of DP Jack Asher. The enhanced HD transfer in display here is clearly superior to other HD presentations of this film I have seen so far, including Warner Film Archive’s streaming version: this is the first time I have noticed the eyelashes of Yvonne Furneaux, embalmed as Princess Ananka, delicately trembling as Lee as Kharis almost finishes reciting the content of the Scroll of Life.

4. Marketa Lazarová (Criterion Collection, Region A)

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Ever since I have caught Frantisek Vlácil’s The Valley of the Bees (1968) at UC Berkeley’s Pacific Film Archive, I was in fact dreading the days in which I would have to come to see Marketa Lazarová. To say that this movie presents the medieval European life in the way the denizens of the times perceived it is such a terribly inadequate way to describe it, and I am not even sure whether such a claim can be proven. What we can conservatively accept is that Marketa Lazarová shakes one’s perception of linear narrative, of reality, of diegesis like so many snowflakes in a glass sphere, and yet it somehow retains the core strength of a mythical, eternally retold story about human desire, misery, violation and forgiveness. I suppose on one very basic level, it, like many great works of art, asks what makes human beings different from animals, and what makes them aspire to but unable to reach Godhood. Well, in Marketa there is an omniscient narrator-God, who dismissively mocks the blood-drenched travails of his Creatures, “yes, and their stories are such. You know them very well.” Pardon us for disagreeing, God, but there is not a single movie like Marketa Lazarová anywhere, and its beauty and power is frighteningly mysterious. Criterion’s Blu Ray presentation makes it as if this hypnotic, magical wonder of a motion picture was filmed and sound-mixed last week.

3. Intolerance (Cohen Media Group, Region Free)

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Another silent film Blu Ray from Cohen Media Group, this time even older than The Thief of Baghdad, Intolerance (1916) is D. W. Griffith’s magnificent follow-up to his racist epic Birth of the Nation, and it was already a crazy enterprise in its day: four stories set in four different time periods, with roughly but not exactly corresponding characters, progressing in a parallel, until the climactic raid of Persians to Babylon and the efforts of the Dear One to prevent her husband from being executed wrongfully clash together in a dazzling cross-cutting editing. I only attempted to watch Intolerance once before in a blue moon but under such a crummy conditions I retain hardly any memory of it: so it comes as zero surprise that watching Cohen Media Group’s restored Blu Ray, with the majestic score composed for the revival by Carl Davis, and played in correct speed and tinting schemes, was like seeing a 60-karat diamond made out of a jagged stone unfit for hammering a nail down. Yet, days after seeing this pioneering motion picture with jaws dropped on my knees, my brain is still haunted, not so much by its incredible spectacles, but by its wonderful characters, especially Mountain Girl and Friendless One…

2. Zatoichi: The Blind Swordsman Collection (Criterion Collection, Region A)

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By all ye Gods, the position of No. 1 Blu Ray release should have been claimed by this truly, absolutely AMAZING package from Criterion. Katsu Shintaro’s all Zatoichi films, from his very first Tale of Zatoichi (1962), not only to his Daiei but Toho-produced later works, all the way up to Zatoichi’s Conspiracy (1973), all 26 of ‘em, all in sparkling hi-def transfer: what can I say? I cannot quite think of any other Blu Ray release of a film series like this one.

Here I just want to add one sentence: now that you have this magnificent, resplendent package in your hands, do me a big favor, please, and don’t call them SAMURAI FILMS. You see, Zatoichi is not a samurai. He is, if anything, a SAMURAI-KILLER. So if you want to call ‘em SAMURAI-KILLER MOVIES, go right ahead. Just don’t call them Samurai Films. Wakatta?

1. Bullfighter and the Lady (Olive Films, Region A)

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This happens again, but when it come time to explain my reasons for choosing the year’s top Blu Ray choice, words always fail me. I really cannot articulate why Budd Boetticher’s intimate take on Mexican toreo, a “sports” that certainly will be frowned upon by animal rights activists today, should be given this position. All I can say is… that Bullfighter and the Lady seems to hail from an alternative reality, in which human beings somehow act (“act” as in “move,” and also “act” as in “pretend”) differently from ours, where everything is purer, more direct and more emotional. This alternative reality is neither utopia nor Heaven. Just a place where cinematic lens is always perhaps a notch or two clearer, where a human smile is just a shade brighter and realer.

Of all movies I have seen at home-front in 2013, Bullfighter and the Lady, an autobiographical movie directed by the master of B-Westerns, was the one that most profoundly touched my movie-fan’s heart (And let’s not forget that Olive Film’s Blu Ray is a restored version that runs 124 minutes).

Oh. My. Lord. I am exhausted, but I am so pleased that I was able to mount this list, a small, small record of all the great motion pictures I was able to catch in 2013. Too bad I am too tired to list other worthy candidates that did not make the list. As usual, for anyone who has wondered around to this blog, I hope this list provides whatever modicum of aid to enrichment of your own movie-watching experience, and happy movie-watching in the new year as well!

December 25, 2013

Merry Christmas

Filed under: Personal Observations — Q @ 12:12 pm

A christmas tree made of (unused) bound journals, encyclopedia entries and other publications, Shields Library, UC Davis. Sorry that the picture is a bit blurry and you can’t quite make out the titles.

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It’s become another cliche to duly express outrage and regret around December that yet another year is passing… and so few blog entries! The year is not quite over yet, but I am slowly gearing myself for an inventory of 2013 movie-watching and disc-collecting… for blu rays this year has shaped up to be an embarrassment of riches. And I finally managed to catch 2-3 streaming/downloading films, not available in DVDs or Blu Rays, that I might be able to fit into the year’s final list.

Meanwhile, I am slogging through the mountains of data to complete my second book on the colonial Korea chapter by chapter… I am learning so much about Northeast China (Manchuria) and Taiwan in 1930s and 1940s on the side that I am sorely tempted to write whole articles on them. But first things first… the book on Korea must be finished, or at least 2/3 finished, so that I can talk to the publishers.

In any case, Merry Christmas or Happy Holidays to everyone who has stumbled into this here space… the one and only Tsukamoto Shin’ya will soon be featured! And of course the best-of list for 2013… another wonderful year for the collectors of the rare, weird and/or underappreciated films from all over the world!

November 13, 2013

Book Review- John Shirley, DOYLE AFTER DEATH

Filed under: Uncategorized — Q @ 6:11 pm

DOYLE AFTER DEATH.
By John Shirley

Witness Impulse, Harper Collins Publishers
October 22, 2013

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One of the cyberpunk founders John Shirley, an extensive interview with whom has graced these pages some time ago, has come up with another genre-defying concoction, in which– are you ready for this?– a second-rate private eye from Las Vegas dies and “wakes up” to find himself settling down in what appears to be a pleasant country resort town called Garden Rest, where he befriends, ah, you guessed correctly, Arthur Conan Doyle. The protagonist, a bit of a smart-mouth named Nick Fogg, discovers to his fascination and befuddlement that the afterlife is so much like the “real” life– there is sex, there is money, and everyone hankers for cigarettes– but is even more surprised, not to mention disturbed, to learn that the dead folks can be murdered, in a fashion, and the consequence for one’s spiritual self is no less dire than the “original” death. When the terrible, ectoplasmic “remains” of a meek botanist are found, Doyle and Fogg team up to investigate, the erstwhile gumshoe volunteering for the role of a somewhat smart-alecky Dr. Watson.

Doyle After Death is a “typical” Shirley-fiction in the sense that its prose flows naturally and describes the improbables and imponderables with a good deal of sensuality and aplomb, but never forgetting added spices of switchblade wit and genuine weirdness, as in, for instance, his depiction of a psychic storm that, in this afterlife, assumes a terrifyingly climatological dimension. Nevertheless, the overall tone of the relatively short novel is exceptionally gentle. There seems to be a level of optimism– set against the abyssal view of a Lovecraftian universe– that, without attachment to corporeal bodies, we are more likely to come to embrace peace and understanding, reminiscent of Gnosticism and certain aspects of Buddhism.

In fact, perhaps to the disappointment of the readers looking for a Holmesian pastiche, Shirley focuses on Doyle’s spiritualism rather than his status as a creator of the world’s most famous consulting detective. The British author has previously appeared as a character in genre novels, for instance in William Hjortsberg’s Nevermore (1994), but I think Shirley might be the first writer to take his dabbling in the afterlife seriously enough to actually bring to life some of his ideas (Of course, Doyle in the novel wryly and readily acknowledges that so much of his speculations and beliefs about the afterlife were bogus or just plain wrong). In other words, Shirley himself is pretty serious about the prospect of the afterlife, and puts a lot of efforts in designing and laying down basic principles behind the topography of Garden Rest, in a deft mixture of the fanciful (the birds that echo a character’s thoughts back to him) and the eerie (a strangely convincing form of spiritual vampirism, colorfully messy).

Like the alien planet in Shirley’s brain-shaking masterpiece Splendid Chaos (I am still waiting some insane movie producer/director to at least attempt a cinematic adaptation of this), and much of the similarly fantastic landscapes in his other fictions, the afterlife in Doyle After Death comes with an ecological system of its own, with some spiritually advanced beings getting Summons into an unfathomable “higher” state, while others devolving into spiritually “lower” states of forgetting their objectives or meanings of their existence (The blue, fleet balls of light known as “forgetters” amusingly remind me of the Japanese hitodama). Transcending one’s obsession or addiction in the original life is a key to evolution, one of persistent themes in Shirley’s works.

Doyle After Death cannot be really construed as a mystery or detective fiction, hard-boiled or otherwise, despite some obvious stuff flowing in from those genres (including a very funny, menacing and pathetic character straight out of an urban crime fiction named Bull Moore, whom I wish was given a bigger role). Neither is it a biting socio-political satire in the manner of, say, Robert Sheckley’s Immortality, Inc. (1958), although there are elements of that in Shirley’s novel as well. In a way, Doyle After Death is a novelistic variation of film blanc: the afterlife is essentially a benign place bereft of the limitations of the physical life, and the characters struggle to overcome the issues and problems that have constrained (and destroyed) them in their “real” lives and to reach a level of higher understanding. The main difference between this novel and the classic film blanc like Heaven Can Wait (1943) is the absence of a (guardian) angel, although the Greek philosopher Diogenes may fit the bill in a few instances.

Seen from this angle, Doyle After Death is an unexpectedly soothing novel, that, despite its terrifying demons and otherworldly shenanigans, ultimately attempts in its way to persuade us to accept death as a transition, an opportunity to growth toward greater wisdom and inner peace.

* Review Copy Courtesy of Edelweiss/Harper Collins.
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