Thursday, January 31, 2013
Rolling Thunder (1977) (2nd viewing) d. Flynn, John (USA)
At first glance, this is a solid piece of 70s vigilante/revenge exploitation. In fact, the opening half hour (minus the gooey “San Antonio” theme song) is a genuinely contemplative, returning-Vietnam-veteran drama, pre-dating The Deer Hunter and Coming Home by a full year, with hardened POW Major Charles Rane (William Devane) tentatively reuniting with his family after years of isolation. But after hoodlums murder his wife and son, leaving him with a bloody stump for a hand following a garbage disposal close encounter, the stereotypical track-down-and-kill-the-baddies stage is set, especially once Devane starts sharpening up his metal amputee hook and
Tuesday, January 29, 2013
Boy and His Samurai, A (2010) d. Nakamura, Yoshihiro (Japan)
Through the mysteries of time travel, a handsome young samurai (Ryo Nishikido) appears in modern day Edo where he is taken in by a single mother (Rie Tomosaka) and her six-year-old son (Fuku Suzuki). Our hero predictably becomes the boy’s best friend, protector and substitute dad and while the time-honored stranger-in-a-strange-land comic tropes get their due, it’s after Nishikido has been reasonably indoctrinated into modern society that the film finds its true stride and heart. Scenes of a “Mr. Mom” nature reveal an unlikely culinary superstar, as skilled with a blade in the kitchen as on the battlefield. Once the world comes calling, will he become a stereotypical overworked Japanese male, forgoing family for career? Will he have to choose between his heart and the samurai code? Packed with surprises, smiles, and an array of mouth-watering onscreen edibles sure to send you scurrying to the closest Japanese sweet shop for dessert.
Turn Me On, Goddammit! (2011) d. Jacobsen, Jannicke Systad (Norway)
Hormones rage and hypocrisy reigns in a small Norwegian village as seen through the compelling gaze of Alma (winningly played by Helene Bergsholm), an attractive teen preoccupied with sexual fantasies featuring her hunky classmate Matias Myren. When he reciprocates her feelings in amusingly blunt fashion at a school mixer, Alma’s world is turned upside down, rejected by her classmates for publicly proclaiming her potential paramour’s unusual mating tactics. A charming, funny, fresh and emotionally truthful examination of passion and puberty, of hypocrisy and hankering...all with the most emphatic title you're likely to find anywhere.
Hail (2011) (1st viewing) d. Courtin-Wilson, Amiel (Australia)
An aging ex-con struggles to find his way back in the world in a breathtaking, immediate drama from Down Under, “based on the life and stories of Daniel P. Jones," the film’s star. Juxtaposing poetic images with handheld slice-of-life scenarios, with characters sharing the same names as the actors playing them, director Courtin-Wilson works on an almost instinctual level – perfectly in tandem with his extraordinary players who achieve a documentary-like authenticity within their banal to beastly conversations. (Leanne Letch is a marvel as Jones’ longtime companion, lighting up the screen with her unabashed ordinariness.) As tragedy strikes and things grow progressively darker in the final act, Courtin-Wilson’s camera reflects the mood, extreme close-ups and foggy, unfocused screen imagery dominating. A searing character study that dares you to meet its gaze – the reward being sights heretofore unseen. (Yes, I’m talking about the terrifying/beautiful horse scene.)
Wrinkles (2011) d. Ferreras, Ignacio (Spain)
Based on the graphic novel Arrugas by Paco Roca, this animated dramedy (about a former bank manager relocated to a retirement home by his frustrated offspring) packs a surprising emotional punch within its two-dimensional world. As a chapter closes and a new one begins for Emilio (voiced by Álvaro Guevara), we experience not only his frustrations as body and mind slowly lose their former vigor, but also his warm companionship with newfound fellow “inmates” who intrinsically understand what the outside world cannot. Expertly executed, eloquently communicated.
Il n'y a pas de rapport sexuel (2011) d. Siboni, Raphaël (France)
“There is no sexual rapport.” A rambling, amusing and occasionally poignant examination of one man’s career as a director/performer of pornography. This behind-the-scenes look at the skin flick trade and its prominent purveyor Hervé P. Gustave, who goes by the moniker HPG, reveals the trials and tribulations that go hand in hand (or shaft in slot, as the case may be) with the creation of said material, such as getting money shots, shooting around anatomy for soft porn gigs, and coaxing reluctant amateurs to perform as the clock is ticking. Culled from 10 years of oh-so-very-unerotic footage, renowned visual artist Siboni shapes an intriguing portrait, one that never glorifies or condemns its subject or his chosen profession.
Painted Skin: The Resurrection (2012) (1st viewing) d. Wuershan (China)
Opulent on every level, this epic Asian fantasy film is gorgeous to behold but perhaps commits the sin of taking itself too seriously for a story concerning fox and bird demons infiltrating a warrior princess’ court. A few judicious trims and a lighter touch overall couldn’t have hurt, but with spells casting, swords flashing, giant bears’ teeth gnashing and romance everlasting, it’s hard to complain too much. An in-name-only sequel to Gordon Chan’s 2008 smash Painted Skin.
We Are Legion: The Story of the Hacktivists (2012) d. Knappenberger, Brian (USA)
The internet collective Anonymous is given a face behind its ubiquitous Guy Fawkes mask, with director Knappenberger tracking the group’s evolution from merry pranksters to controversial purveyors of protest, targeting heavyweight institutions such as the Church of Scientology, PayPal, Sony, and the Egyptian government. While they are portrayed as a force for “chaotic good,” their facelessness presents the frightening side effect that they can launch attacks on anyone, at any time, for any reason. If I have any complaint, it’s that the film gives only the vaguest lip service to innocent bystanders caught in the cyber crossfire. True, the organization has accomplished heroic deeds, but with great power comes great responsibility, as the saying goes, and it quickly becomes clear that not everyone involved is interested in being responsible, mature or in anything other than sticking it to The Man...whomever the all-too-subjective Man may be.
Alter Egos (2012) d. Galland, Jordan (USA)
Writer/director Galland’s amusing meditation on the superhero mythos, watching the spandex suit set deal with ordinary problems such as girlfriend trouble, insufficient government funding, and where to store those civilian duds when fighting crime…as well as the occasional supervillain menace. Kris Lemche stars as ’Fridge (short for Refrigerator), currently going through an ice-slinging midlife crisis, with Cabin Fever’s Joey Kern (as C-Thru) and Brooke Nevin (attractive if uncooperative hotel clerk) lending solid support to a silly, silly cause.
Vulgaria (2012) d. Pang, Ho-Cheung (Hong Kong)
Strapped for cash and with alimony/child support debt mounting, film producer of low budget schlock (Chapman To) is forced to join forces with a twisted, bestiality-loving gangster who wants to produce a sequel to his favorite childhood porn film, 1976's Confession of a Concubine (a real film whose real star, Susan Shaw, appears here as herself 35 years later). A zany, raunchy satire of the filmmaking world, where one-of-a-kind characters (like comely Popping Candy, whose fellatio techniques include a mouthful of Pop Rocks) run wild and CGI is put to its most bizarre use yet. Amidst all this obscenity and insanity, Pang’s film is a sweet, sentimental tale of a family man just trying to get through the day, a dick joke flick with heart.
Toy Masters (2012) d. Lay, Jr., Roger (USA)
A documentary that nails the nostalgic sweet spot of any kid who grew up in the '80s, a sweet remembrance to Mattel’s line of toys, He-Man and the Masters of the Universe, as well as the television shows, ill-fated feature film and paraphernalia spawned in its wake. The behind-the-scenes drama over who actually created the musclebound plastic hero is engaging at first, but as the same ground gets traveled over and over, it becomes a little tedious. This being the world premiere (Fantasia 2012), I suspect/hope that future iterations will be trimmed somewhat; considering that the filmmakers reportedly have an interview scheduled with Dolph Lundgren (star of the 1987 feature), this is clearly not the final cut. With a little tightening, this will likely prove a hit on the doc circuit.
Jackpot (2011) d. Martens, Magnus (Norway)
When Kyrre Hellum and his ex-con co-workers go in on a soccer pool ticket together…and then shockingly win an enormous pile of cash, the phrase “No honor among thieves” explodes into sharp focus. Hammers are put to savage use, bodies are fed into recycling center processors and strip clubs turn into shooting galleries. Based on a story by crime writer Jo Nesbo (who also wrote the source material for Morten Tyldum’s superb HeadHunters), blood and beer flow freely in a black comedy cavalcade, with Martens marshalling his superb cast of ne’er do wells and the sharp police detective (Henrik Mestad) determined to unearth the truth, no matter how bizarre it might be. Whatever is in the water up Norway-way, keep drinking it, guys. Skol!
Despite the Gods (2012) d. Vozniak, Penny (USA)
A superb examination of the herculean task of making any feature film, coupled with the culture clash of seeing an American woman (in this case Jennifer Lynch) trying to direct a Bollywood fantasy/horror film called Hisss. Lynch is no shrinking violet in the face of adversity, and while she occasionally comes off a little coarse and ballsy, she’s never portrayed as an Ugly American or straight-up beyotch. She’s understandably frustrated by the lack of preproduction machinery in place (days before she is scheduled to start shooting), and with an angry producer breathing down her neck and a huge cast awaiting her signals, our heart goes out to her while she struggles to gain her footing. Vozniak isn’t afraid to show her subject as a vulnerable but strong female who is human in her mistakes and in her emotions, making the battles lost and won that much more compelling.
Monday, January 28, 2013
Carre Blanc (2011) (2nd viewing) d. Léonetti, Jean-Baptiste (France)
When I first saw this in April at the 2012 Brussels International Fantastic Film Festival, there were no English subtitles on the print screened, so I figured I might have been missing some of the finer points of this dystopian effort about a young boy trained from an early age to be a behavioral instructor for a mysterious governmental organization. As it turns out, the cryptic approach persists even when one does understand what’s being said, as there are few answers as to who the mighty Orwellian conglomerate is, what its employees actually do, and why breeding and croquet are so important to the culture at large that reports on both regularly interrupt omnipresent music programs. Even so, writer/director Léonetti’s sober film (whose title translates to “white square”) holds the attention with tense scenes of violence and, as the adult version of the lad, Sami Bouajila’s commanding screen presence is well put to use as the inscrutable tool of the corporate machine. It’s a head scratcher and a discussion starter, which is what I think Léonetti was going for.
Graceland (2011) d. Morales, Ron (Philippines)
Leon Miguel turns in an outstanding central performance as the chauffeur of crooked politician Menggie Cobarrubias, both of whose lives are turned upside down and inside out when a kidnapping plot targets the elected official’s daughter. A superb, uncompromising thriller from writer/director Morales about complicity and class station that merits serious attention.
Lloyd the Conqueror (2011) d. Peterson, Michael (Canada)
A relatively harmless comedy about a group of slacker community college students roped into joining a LARPing tournament in order to save their grades. For better or worse, taking potshots at the Live Action Role Playing crowd is playing with a pretty low net, and one doesn’t feel any real affection for its participants from director Peterson and co-writer Andrew Herman depictions. Not to say there aren’t some humorous moments and interactions (Brian Posehn, as the sage white wizard Andy, has some choice deadpan moments) but Lloyd doesn’t seem to respect its subject or offer any real insight into this immersive alternate universe (like say, Role Models or The Wild Hunt). It’s just a punchline, a vehicle for goofy laffs.
Letter to Momo, A (2011) d. Okiura, Hiroyuki (Japan)
Following an argument, a young girl loses her father to a boating accident, later finding a letter that contains only the words, “Dear Momo…” Shattered by guilt, she and her mother relocate to the family’s island fishing village to make a fresh start, but mysterious otherworldly forces are at work and Momo soon finds herself the unwitting companion of three oafish companions…a trio of benign goblins assigned to watch over her from “Above.” Fantasy and the everyday combine in utterly endearing fashion is this exquisite animated film written and directed by Okiura, reportedly seven years in the making with every frame hand-drawn. The technical care and craftsmanship are well complemented by a sincere and touching coming-of-age story, one whose two-hour runtime flies by with ease. Winner of the Audience Award for Best Animated Feature at the 2012 Fantasia Film Festival.
Afro Tanaka (2012) d. Matsui, Daigo (Japan)
Splendid romantic comedy in the broad Japanese vein, meaning that characters do a lot of face-pulling and vocal histrionics, here in the service of a story about a young man with an incredibly lush head of kinky curls (brought into existence by sheer childhood will). The winning Shota Matsuda plays the titular lead with a blend of twentysomething bravado and insecurity, chasing any number of potential female candidates to ride his arm for a high school chum’s upcoming wedding. Naturally, his dream girl shows up next door (an effervescent Nozomi Sasaki), but misconceptions and fate keep them apart for the majority of the running time. Hey, we wouldn’t have a movie otherwise, right? An endearing and well-crafted amusement, full of heart and relatable scenarios. Adapted by Masafumi Nishida from Masaharu Noritsuke's manga.
Black's Game (2012) d. Axelsson, Óskar Thór (Iceland)
If you’ve watched any underworld/drug dealing crime films, filled with unsavory characters running at a deficit of trust, there’s not a lot here you haven’t seen before. The main distinction is that this one is set in Iceland, and the gang members are all comprised of young bucks as opposed to elder statesmen (although I suppose the latter is not that different from the spate of urban U.S. films from the ’90s). There’s plenty of violence, some kinky sex with a same-sex twist, suspense, dishonor among thieves and one hell of a fun catchphrase takeaway, and while none of these elements elevate it to must-see status, they certainly will appeal to fans of the genre. Based on the novel by Stefán Máni, exec-produced by Nicolas Winding Refn.
Asura (2012) d. Sato, Keiichi (Japan)
A breathtaking big screen realization of the 1970 manga by George Akiyama about an abandoned feral child roaming the wastelands of feudal Japan, armed with a mouthful of fangs, big freaking axe and a superhuman will to survive. When kindness is finally shown to him, first by a stoic monk and later a tender-hearted adolescent girl, the beast within abates, but the harsh existence they face presents many antagonists to peaceful living. With CG characters existing within hand-illustrated environments, the film looks especially gorgeous on the big screen; ditto the sound design that gives Asura full agitated voice to his frustrations and rage. An animated film with more on its mind than simple diversion or entertainment, a worthy tribute to its once-banned source material. Winner of the Audience Award for Best Animated Feature at the 2012 Fantasia Film Festival.
Singham (2011) d. Shetty, Rohit (India)
Time to get your Bollywood on with this over-the-top action extravaganza about the titular noble small town cop (Ajay Devgn) who is prepared to lay his patented lion’s paw slap down on injustice anywhere. But when he offends big city racketeer Prakash Raj, the stage is set for a war of wills and an array of eye-popping stuntwork as bodies and vehicle take to the skies. Inherently exaggerated in every department, there are dizzying camera over-and-undercrankings and whirling crane shots (as well as the requisite musical numbers – the oft-repeated title theme being especially infectious) to rival any Hollywood blockbuster, and the performances match the deliciously larger-than-life tone. Kidnapping plots, extortion schemes, planted evidence, and a little romance from resident lovely Kajal Aggarwal are all part of a day’s work for Singham – let your inner lion roar!
Sunday, January 27, 2013
Warped Forest, The (2011) d. Miki, Shunichiro (Japan)
It isn’t often that a director can so effortless create an alternate universe where the rules of our waking world no longer correspond to the one we’re seeing projected. Co-writer/director Miki, however, has done just that with his passion project rife with sexual imagery, exotic lifeforms and floating pyramids with corresponding orbiting spheres. Interpretations of the film’s underlying intentions could fill several books, but it also succeeds as a work of pure fancy where odd creatures wander the landscape, people one-sixth the size of “normal” humans occupy the same world without comment, and all sexual energies are directed to the consuming of suggestively shaped fruit. A major work from the co-director of 2005’s The Funky Forest.
Sons of Norway (2011) d. Lien, Jens (Norway)
This disarming and compelling Norwegian slice-of-life drama has at its core a pair of dazzling performances – Asmund Hoeg as a pint-sized adolescent discovering the rules of rebellion (fueled by the UK punk rock movement of the early 80s), and Sven Nordin’s iconoclast hippie father who challenges then supports his son’s interests and beliefs. Via safety pins shoved through cheeks, snarling jam sessions, and a hilarious nudist camp sequence, individuality is celebrated and the status quo knocked with warmth and intelligence. Working from Nikolaj Frobenius’ adaptation of his autobiographical novel Theory and Practice, director Lien finds our hearts with the lightest of touches. Fun little cameo by John Lydon aka The Sex Pistols' Johnny Rotten.
King of Pigs, The (2011) (1st viewing) d. Yeon, Sang-ho (South Korea)
In this relentlessly bleak animated feature, two childhood chums – fellow social outcasts – meet up 15 years after graduation to discuss their former lives and the events that shaped them. Eschewing the traditional anime stylings, there are some incredible visuals depicted amidst what is essentially a naturalistic examination of social hierarchy, both on a “popularity” status and based on income, and one comes to care about the misfit characters incapable of changing their position in Life’s pecking order.
(My biggest beef was with the 2012 Fantasia Film Festival print’s English subtitles, which I desperately hope someone pointed out to the distributors sooner than later. As it stood, there were times where, with a little work, one can figure out the sense of the dialogue, but there are others that are absolutely incoherent. This will affect festival/DVD play, so it’s no small thing.)
Bones Brigade: An Autobiography (2012) (1st viewing) d. Peralta, Stacy (USA)
Prior to viewing, I knew three things about skateboarding: 1) It’s a board with wheels, 2) I cannot ride, stand or roll on said board to save my soul, and 3) Tony Hawk is the skateboard king. Well, thanks to this funny, fast-paced documentary, I also learned that Mssr. Hawk was a member of an elite skate team headed up by our director Peralta, a group of young men who helped rejuvenate and redefine the sport, making it accessible to the masses while elevating their abilities to those of world class athletes.
When the heads aren’t talking, the wheels are rolling and some of the stunts captured on screen are simply revelatory – these boys make it all look so easy, so graceful, so impossibly grand yet somehow something that anyone can do. Examining the careers of professional skaters Tony Hawk, Steve Caballero, Rodney Mullen, Lance Mountain, Mike McGill and Tommy Guerrero through the eyes of the team themselves as well as their peers, we get an idea of just how much the sextet changed the sport, and how much the sport changed them. Equally intriguing is the marketing of said team – key to the financing of their extensive travel and competition budgets – without Peralta’s shrewd schemes and approach, it’s possibly skateboarding could have died out along with the yo-yo and the hula hoop.
Black Pond (2011) (1st viewing) d. Kingsley, Tom / Sharpe, Will (UK)
Extraordinary black “mumblecore” comedy from across the pond, the debut feature from writing/directing team Kingsley and Sharpe. Chris Langham, who registers as a more urban/equally urbane Alan Rickman, leads a superlative ensemble of players inhabiting a dysfunctional family both outlandish and familiar whose lives take a bizarre, headline-grabbing turn after a stranger (Colin Hurley) strolls onto their property. Peppered throughout with documentary-style testimonials and hindsight commentary on the events that unfold, as well as some priceless life coaching sessions (Simon Amstell) sure to spook anyone seeking a therapist anytime soon. An absolute winner.
Smuggler (2011) d. Ishii, Katsuhito (Japan)
A war between two rival drug running gangs results in a double digits body count, much of the onscreen violence doled out in wild-eyed, bone-crunching glory by psychotic assassin Masanobu Ando (called “Vertebrae” in the subtitles, though IMDb lists the character as “Spine”), all bleached hair and scar-riddled flesh. Ando’s screen presence is matched by the taciturn Masatoshi Nagase, playing a no-questions transporter of goods and people. Caught in the middle is failed actor Satoshi Tsumabuki, who unwitting commits himself to life in the underworld to repay his “insults” only to end up playing a significant role in the bloody game that ensues. Appealing on a visceral level (an extended torture sequence, extreme slo-mo collisions between blunt objects and tender flesh, etc.), but ultimately a bit unsubstantial and more than a bit silly.
Punch (2011) d. Han, Lee (South Korea)
Heartwarming South Korean charmer about a poverty-level dysfunctional family comprised of a hunchback tap dancer (Su-young Park), his mentally deficient male floor partner (Yeong-jae Kim), and a sullen teen son loner (Ah In Yoo) struggling for identity. Relentlessly pushed by his brusque homeroom teacher (Yun-seok Kim) – who just happens to live across the alleyway rooftop – to live an honest, emotional and empathetic life, a sometimes dangerous proposition as Yoo is a ferocious street fighter, a talent Kim attempts to channel into a kickboxing career. Unpredictable and filled with appealing surprises that elicit gales of laughter one minute and sighs of humanity the next. A winner of the highest order.
Headshot (2011) (1st viewing) d. Ratanaruang, Pen-Ek (Thailand)
This slyly clever title reveals multiple meanings when our hitman sharpshooter (Nopporn Chaiyanam) adept at doling out death finds himself on the wrong end of a bullet to the skull, the ensuing trauma causing his brain to literally see the world upside down. This “new vision” proves just as confusing as the old, with duplicitous characters and tenuous alliances as the shadows of his former life pursue him even into his new existence as a monk. Narrative time jumps – mostly indicated by the length of Chaiyanam’s hair – provide the juice even with minimal action and/or gunplay. Fine use of visual touchstones further accented by Ratanaruang’s sure visual compositions.
Saturday, January 26, 2013
Sword Identity, The (2011) d. Haofeng, Xu (China)
A mysterious and preternaturally skilled warrior enters a Ming-era city noted for its venerable martial arts schools, seeking to prove his worth. Think you’ve seen this one before? Think again. Writer/director Haofeng is out to buck preexisting notions of the classic martial arts flick, and he does so with great success, as this is a swordsman film unlike any other. Unfortunately for this viewer’s taste, he strips away the conventions without supplying a worthy replacement for them, leaving us with an inert, dull and consciously sedate “action” movie. As deconstruction of an established genre, there is little faulting the filmmakers’ efforts. However, as thrill-inducing, blade-flashing entertainment, this left much to be desired.
Funeral Kings (2012) (1st viewing) d. McManus, Kevin / McManus, Matthew (USA)
Energetic and authentic to the point of blushing portrait of middle school suburban life, complete with the offhand lies, unrequited pining, sibling-like bonds and rivalries, rebellious bouts of smoking/drinking, disregard for authority, and casual profanity accenting every utterance and thought. Wicked sharp ensemble of younger performers who effortlessly inhabit these characters, especially the main trio of Dylan Hartigan, Alex Maizus, and Jordan Puzzo.
Mitsuko Delivers (2011) (1st viewing) d. Ishii, Yuya (Japan)
Ishii, a 2010 Fantasia Film Festival grand jury winner for Best Film with Sawako Decides, presents an achingly charming and quirky comedy set in a rural Japanese village. The depressed community undergoes a radical shift in mood with the return of the titular female character, bulging at the midriff from a romantic U.S. interlude (constantly referred to as “very big and very black).” Decidedly heightened in tone and characters’ behavior, yet grounded enough to retain a measure of emotional resonance, with engaging meditations on defining (and redefining) what is “cool” (or “uncool”) and the importance of speaking one’s heart sooner than later (but better late than never). An utterly winning film that leaves itself open to future installments, and who wouldn’t want to spend another few hours with this colorful crew?
Starry Starry Night (2011) d. Lin, Tom (Taiwan)
This adaptation of Jimmy Liao’s children’s book casts a glowing spell with its astonishing visual imagery grounded by a achingly human story of a young girl (Xu Jiao) awakening to Life’s harsh emotional truths: Loved ones die, parents don’t love each other forever, friends can be cruel, and sins go unpunished. Yet within this trauma-filled landscape, there is beauty and wonder and love, which our heroine discovers through her friendship with a new school classmate (Hui Ming Lin), an introverted young artist. Together, the two brave mocking peers and familial disquiet in a quiet and sincere exploration of youth and romance, finding the pieces that fit our puzzling human lives.
Wrong (2012) d. Dupieux, Quentin (USA)
Though this will undoubtedly be marketed as “from the director of Rubber,” viewers not entirely entranced by that flick’s meta approach to the sci-fi/horror premise of a Scanner-like self-ambulating tire need not steer clear of this sterling surrealist comedy. Nebbish Jack Plotnick wakes up to discover his beloved pooch Paul missing, an event which sparks a day in the life adventure unlike any we’ve seen before. In Dupieux’s world, the expression “anything can happen” is taken to a whole new level, and revealing any of the surprises in store would be doing a disservice. (You’ll never look at a clock reading 7:59 the same way again.) Suffice to say, it’s funny as hell, brilliantly performed, wholly original, ridiculous, and not to be missed.
Cold Steel (2012) (1st viewing) d. Wu, David (Hong Kong)
When young mountain town hunter Peter Ho insults officers of the Chinese Nationalist Army, he is arrested. But when their caravan is waylaid by Japanese soldiers, Ho utilizes his preternatural sharpshooting skills to fend off the attack and is subsequently inducted into the armed forces as a member of an elite squad of snipers. The action sequences are masterfully handled by director Wu, longtime editor of John Woo’s most renowned Hong Kong efforts, though much of the pseudo-poetic dialogue comes off clumsy and melodramatic. When no one is talking, however, it’s a wingding, bullet-meets-brains good time.
Dragon (aka Wu Xia) (2011) (1st viewing) d. Chan, Peter (Hong Kong)
While I’m admittedly not versed enough in the world of martial arts films to make any such claim, it seems Donnie Yen is one of the few headlining Hong Kong stars who can impress both with his flying feet and fist as well as his potent acting chops. Having amassed an impressive resume of international hits like Iron Monkey, Hero and the Ip Man films (a third installment of which is supposedly in the works), one has to wonder when Hollywood is going to swoop in and steal him away. This latest effort is no exception, with Yen playing a simple village papermaker who “accidentally” kills two villains during a robbery – the ensuing investigation revealing a darker past that our “hero” has sought to keep secret. But the real delight is the return of 70s chopsocky star Jimmy Wang Yu, who blows everyone else off the screen as Yen’s long estranged father. Seriously, you can’t buy presence like this, and even if the rest of the picture weren’t worthwhile (which it definitely is), Yu’s sequences make this a must-see.
For Love’s Sake (2012) (1st viewing) d. Miike, Takashi (Japan)
When violent sullen bad boy Satoshi Tsumabuki crosses paths with idealistic rich girl Emi Takei, the stage is set for a “different worlds” romance, but this being a Miike film, there is nothing traditional about the events that unfold. However, even setting aside the evening’s projection issues, there is a distracted feeling about the prolific and unpredictable auteur’s latest musical/comedy/romance/action offering. Not because of its willful genre blundering, which I quite enjoyed, but rather because occasionally its internal rhythm seems to falter – behavior and motivations feel strained rather than fanciful, as though Miike felt that he had an obligation to color outside the lines as opposed to being inspired to do so. Still, audiences ate up the bizarre Glee-ful interludes right along with the brain-shattering fistfests, though at 133 minutes, the slight material might have slightly overstayed its welcome.
Friday, January 25, 2013
Ronal the Barbarian (2011) d. Andersen / Christoffersen / Lipski (Denmark)
A pleasingly irreverent spin on the animated kids feature, focusing on the titular lone nebbish resident within a musclebound community of axe-slinging, ale-guzzling, fierce and furry (male and female alike) warriors. When a malevolent, supernatural nemesis overwhelms the village with a surprise attack, it’s up to Ronal to assume his destiny, questing alongside a ragtag band of misfits to find the mystical blade. There’s a healthy (or unhealthy, depending on your sensibilities) amount of scatological and/or body humor and the classic tale of an outsider coming into his own is well told.
The only downside lies in the unfortunate English language dub job loaded with dumbed-down Americanized vernacular and vocal characterizations. (For instance, why would a barbarian minstrel talk like a trailer trash hick? Do they really need to use “asshole” every 10 minutes just to be cheeky?) Do yourself a favor and watch it with the original Danish soundtrack to eliminate this unfortunate element (one that often sabotages imported Japanese anime features) because I think there’s an audience out there for Ronal. Kresten Vestbjerg Andersen, Thorbjørn Christoffersen, Philip Einstein Lipski
ID:A (2011) d. Christiansen, Christian E. (Denmark)
Solid Danish thriller that explores the time-honored convention of an amnesiac protagonist (Tuva Novotny) who wakes up devoid of any knowledge of her previous life, though all clues (waking up bleeding in a mountain stream, duffel bag full of cash by her side) point to it not being the everyday housewife existence. Bluffing and gambling her way through, Novotny slowly uncovers her identity even as she dodges a team of assassins clearly dispatched to dispatch her. Solid acting and well-paced action sequences add up to a satisfying popcorn-munching end result.
Flying Swords of Dragon Gate, The (2011) d. Hark, Tsui (China)
Lot of zippy Hong Kong medieval action on hand here, but the complicated story and interchangeability of many of the characters makes things pretty confusing. (Even the press release synopsis seems to require a scorecard to keep things straight.) The biggest reason for celebration must be the reunion between Jet Li and his Once Upon a Time in China director Hark, but the theatrical wonder of wire-fu has been replaced by CGI trickery, and the digitally augmented combat sequences lose the magic as well. Most frustrating though was the 3D processing, which make the lightning-fast sword/footwork extremely difficult to follow, becoming a general wash of flurried fists and steel. Too much whizbang for its own good.
Hindsight (2011) d. Lee, Hyun-seung (South Korea)
Crime drama about former gang boss Kang Ho-Song (Thirst, The Host) who finds deep platonic love with his fellow cooking school classmate Shin Se-Kyung, though she harbors a deep secret that may terminate both their lives. Solid Korean thriller sporting equal parts charm, humor, humanity, action and depth. Well worth checking out.
Extraterrestrial (2011) d. Vigalondo, Nacho (Spain)
From the creator of Timecrimes comes this amusing diversion about a couple (Michelle Jenner, Julian Villagran) waking up after a one night stand unable to remember each other, the night before, or when the hell the giant UFOs showed up around the globe. Following his turn as the “sad clown” in Alex de la Iglesias’ The Last Circus, it seems like character man Carlos Ereces is turning into a hot ticket, having shown up already on the festival circuit in Game of Werewolves and here as the creepy amorous next door neighbor nursing a yen for the luscious Jenner. Very funny comedy that focuses much more on the human interactions than the potential alien threat.
Thursday, January 24, 2013
Ace Attorney (2012) d. Miike, Takashi (Japan)
Zippy little adaptation of the Capcom videogame that also functions as Miike’s most mainstream effort to date, and the marriage proves to be a fruitful one. Ryuichi Naruhodo stars as Phoenix Wright, a struggling young defense attorney with a Woody Woodpecker hairstyle and sagging self image who takes on a big case against childhood friend and prosecuting prodigy Takumi Saito. Fun absurdist touches, futuristic set designs and enthusiastic performances, all supported by a clever mystery thriller script.
Ra. One (2011) (1st viewing) d. Sinha, Anubhav (India)
No denying the appeal factor for this huge blockbuster whizbang Bollywood extravaganza, concerning videogame inventor Shah Ruhk Khan who creates a new motion control game with an unstoppable morphing android as its villain. Equipped with artificial intelligence, the titular menace finds a way to escape the confines of the mainframe and the only one who can stop it is, of course, the game’s hero, G-One (with the face of Khan, naturally). As one might expect, there are numerous musical numbers, but they’re fun, energetic and actually fit nicely into the narrative. Bottom line, the 2.5 hours flew by and the entire crowd left smiling. Highly recommended.
Eliminate Archie Cookson (2011) (1st viewing) d. Holder, Robin (UK)
Pleasing and occasionally bloody diversion about Paul Rhys’ mild-mannered surveillance technician (i.e., he listens to wiretap recordings) who find himself on the hit list after he receives a mysterious pair of audio reels in the post. Couple this with his marital problems and the fact that his assassin turns out to be an old family friend (a show-stealing Paul Ritter), and the results are a clever, if somewhat leisurely paced, comedy thriller. Rhys received a special acting award from the 2012 Brussels International Fantastic Film Festival Thriller Jury.
Sandman, The (2011) d. Luisi, Peter (Switzerland)
Fabian Kruger stars as a sharp-tongued boor who wakes up one morning with sand in his bed, which he quickly discovers is coming from him. As the days tick by, the finely ground quartz (containing increasingly soporific properties) continues to cascade from his sleeves and cuffs, with nightmares of lovestruck encounters with his downstairs waitress neighbor (the charming Irene Brugger, billed here as Frölein Da Capo) growing more and more vivid. Hilarious, touching and deeply romantic, this droll little surreal Swiss comedy instantly secured a spot as one of my favorite flicks of the 2012 Brussels International Fantastic Film Festival (where it received a Special Mention from the European Jury).
Whistleblower, The (2010) d. Kondracki, Larysa (Canada/Germany)
Rachel Weisz is a divorced police officer struggling to secure a transfer to be closer to her daughter, so when the opportunity to accept a lucrative international peacekeeper gig in Bosnia arises, she accepts the job. It’s here that she learns of a human trafficking syndicate, one that involves numerous UN officials and hordes of American citizens protected by international immunity. As you might assume from the title, Weisz takes it upon herself to bring down said organization in this “based on true events” political thriller that will have you shaking your head at humanity’s astonishing capacity for cruelty and how bureaucracy almost always chooses the bottom line over morality. Not a feel-good movie in the slightest. Winner of the "Thriller" prize at the 2012 Brussels International Fantastic Film Festival.
Mr. & Mrs. Incredible (2011) (1st viewing) d. Kok, Vincent (China)
A pleasingly raucous spin on the superhero mythos much the same way as the similarly titled Pixar flick, only in a non-animated, feudal China setting. (Yeah, I realize I just cut/pasted what I wrote above – sue me.) Louis Koo and Sandra Ng star as a pair of retired do-gooders who enjoy their easygoing everyday married lives, but when a martial arts competition comes to town, it brings a wealth of strife into the mix. With quarreling sect leaders and attractive ingénue assistants, it’s not long before the formerly masked marvels are either at each others’ throats or fighting back to back. Breezy and enjoyable Asian fantasy fun.