Archive for July, 2013

Theatrical Viewings:

  1. FRANCES HA (2012) – directed by Noah Baumbach
  2. THE BLING RING (2013) – directed by Sofia Coppola
  3. PACIFIC RIM (2013) – directed by Guillermo del Toro
  4. SHIELD OF STRAW (2013) – directed by Takashi Miike
  5. THE CONJURING (2013) – directed by James Wan
  6. DRUG WAR (2012) – directed by Johnnie To
  7. IT’S ME, IT’S ME (2013) – directed by Satoshi Miki
  8. LESSON OF THE EVIL (2012) – directed by Takashi Miike
  9. THE GRAND HEIST (2012) – directed by Joo-ho Kim
  10. IP MAN: THE FINAL FIGHT (2013) – directed by Herman Yau
  11. DOOMSDAYS (2013) – directed by Eddie Mullins
  12. BIG BAD WOLVES (2013) – directed by Aharon Keshales and Navot Papushado
  13. MACHI ACTION (2013) – directed by Jeff Chang

Home Viewings:

  1. PROMETHEUS (2012) – directed by Ridley Scott
  2. OLDBOY (2003) – directed by Chan-wook Park
  3. DESPICABLE ME (2010) – directed by Pierre Coffin and Chris Renaud

Television:

  1. MARRIED… WITH CHILDREN, 6×09-6×26, 7×01-7×26, 8×01-8×26, 9×01-9×02
  2. FAMILY GUY, 9×04-9×07
  3. TOUGH ENOUGH, 1×01-1×13, 2×01-2×02
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MACHI ACTION (2013) - directed by Jeff Chang

Ever wondered what happens when the proverbial “Man in Suit” gets too old to continue on or gets fired in favor of someone younger and/or hipper? Jeff Chang’s charming, funny and heartwarming new film MACHI ACTION sheds some light on the matter by providing a satirical behind-the-scenes look at the world of kaiju/tokukatsu films and television programs.

Washed up actor Tie Nan’s (Chen Bo-Lin) childhood dream is shattered when the producers of the show in which he plays a space hero replaces him with a fresher face named Face (Owodog Zhuang). Together with his best friend and co-star Monster (Qiu Yanxiang), Tie Nan sets out to find new acting gigs that eventually lead him to rediscover himself, and enlightens him on what being a hero truly means.

Much like ROBO-G of last year, MACHI ACTION is a film that manages to defy the sheer absurdity of its subject matter by telling a story that audiences can easily empathize with, regardless of whether they’ve had any experience working in the entertainment industry. We all fear that one day we’ll be replaced by someone younger, faster, stronger with an eclectic set of skills that put our own to shame, be it in the workforce or even our own personal relationships. This anxiety over remaining relevant can sometimes result in us rising (or as is often the case, sinking) to levels we never dreamed of.  Tie Nan’s journey from fame and fortune to yesterday’s news is something everyone can relate to in some respect. I know I did, which is why MACHI ACTION worked for me on levels I wasn’t quite expecting.

Aside from the film’s subtext, MACHI ACTION’s undeniable highlights include the kaiju/tokukatsu scenes that director Chang lovingly lampoons. I’ve always felt there was a film worth making about what goes on behind-the-scenes in these films, be it a documentary or a work of fiction, and I’m glad to see Jeff Chang rise up to the occasion of giving us just that. Tie Nan plays Spacehero Fly, a takeoff on Ultra Man and watching him in action against some of the more absurd villains had me in hysterics.

Overall, MACHI ACTION is a film that walks the fine line between comedy and drama and does so brilliantly. I highly recommend checking this out if you’re lucky enough to catch it at a film festival near you.

BIG BAD WOLVES (2013) – directed by Aharon Keshales and Navot Papushado

 

There’s 120 feature films playing this year at the Fantasia International Film Festival. I could live without seeing 118 of them. There were two films on my must-see list and BIG BAD WOLVES by directors Aharon Keshales and Navot Papushado was at the very top of it. Their feature film debut RABIES, which was held two years ago at Fantasia, was such a mind-blowing, visceral experience at the movies that I liken it to the time I saw Darren Aronofsky’s PI at Fantasia way back when, in that both were startling examples of a filmmaker with such a mastery of cinematic language you would think you were watching the work of a veteran in the twilight of his career, rather than a novice popping their filmmaking cherry. Needless to say, I went into BIG BAD WOLVES with rather high expectations and I’m very pleased to announce that Keshales and Papushado not only lived up to them, but exceeded them immensely.

There are many reasons why BIG BAD WOLVES is such an enjoyable experience. The casting is wonderful with many of the actors looking like dead ringers for such Hollywood greats as Robert Duvall, Mel Gibson and Paul Giamatti. The film is gorgeous to look at whether it’s the impeccably framed close-ups of our heroes (and villains) in action or the slick and subtle dolly camera movements (see the opening credits sequence). The sound design and music is also very well done adding just the right amount of tension and dread in any given scene.

But chief among all of these things is the fantastic screenplay. At the end of the day, cinematography, editing and sound design are all smoke and mirrors. Any good motion picture is built upon a strong cast and a stronger script and thankfully filmmakers Keshales and Papushado understand this concept to a tee. The story is about a series of brutal murders that puts the lives of three men on a collision course – the father of the latest victim now out for revenge, a vigilante police detective operating outside the boundaries of law, and the main suspect in the killings – a religious studies teacher arrested and released due to a police blunder.

The film starts off as a police procedural with almost some hints of a giallo insofar as there’s been a murder (with a whodunnit factor), a civilian is given immunity to act beyond the law in order to find said criminal, and there are red herrings galore as far as who the filmmakers want us to believe is the murderer. For a good part of the beginning of the film, we’re led to believe that the man (who ends up being the father of the victim) is indeed the killer as we see him spying on the vigilante police detective as well as the religion professor and see him purchasing a home that has a sound-proof basement (in a really great scene where we think he’s going to kill the realty agent). But then just when we think we have him figured out, there’s a twist in the plot and the tables are suddenly turned where all signs point to the religion professor being the killer. Or is he? The film’s twists and turns definitely keep the audience engaged right until the end credits.

One thing I ought to point out is that contrary to what you might gather about the film from viewing elements of the trailer is that it’s not a torture porn film. I have to admit that once things settle down to a simmer and the film really begins (once the father has the religion professor locked up in his basement), I feared that this was simply going to turn into the typical torture porn/revenge film where the father of a sexually assaulted daughter gets violent retribution by systematically tearing apart the man responsible for the nefarious deed. Thankfully, that’s not the case as what could have been yet another variation on HOSTEL/SAW/etc. turns into one of the funniest, cleverest and original takes on the revenge film.

Aharon Keshales and Navot Papushado have been referred by many as the Israeli Coen Brothers and it’s easy to see why. Like the Coens, Keshales and Papushado both work within genre and yet manage to transcend the cliche trappings of it by adding new and unexpected layers that not only surprise and delight longtime fans of these kinds of films but also prove to those who would otherwise scoff at the idea of watching a crime/revenge film that this is a legitimate art-form that’s just as capable, if not more so, of evoking the same powerful emotions like your typical art-house film.

I had a ball watching BIG BAD WOLVES and along with DOOMSDAYS and IT’S ME, IT’S ME, this film will not only find a spot in my top 10 of Fantasia, but likely in my top 10 of 2013.

 

 

DOOMSDAYS (2013) - directed by Eddie Mullins

Eddie Mullins’ DOOMSDAYS may be the first pre-apocalyptic absurd comedy in the history of film. Owing a debt to the deadpan humor of early Jim Jarmusch and the slightly bent characterization of Wes Anderson, director Mullins manages to combine the best of both worlds and create an original and charming one of his own.

The premise is pretty simple in that Dirty Fred and Bruho are a couple of squatters who travel from home to home breaking and entering as they see fit. They don’t have any moral hangups on what they’re doing as according to Bruho, the world is about to come to an end on account of our diminishing oil supplies. Along the way, the guys meet Jayden (a dead ringer for Jonah Hill) and Reyna (a dead ringer for Olivia Wilde) who join their party forming emotional and in the case of the latter, sexual bonds among the leads. The film doesn’t have a “plot” per se and functions more on an episodic level with random events happening to the party over the course of a month. The days are broken up as individual chapters in the film.

I have to say that going into the film, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. There was a part of me fearing that this would be the annual “catering to the hipster crowd” entry that Fantasia seems to program year after year in an attempt to appeal to audiences beyond the genre crowd. Fortunately, it was not as I enjoyed every single frame of this film. The best kinds of films are the ones populated by characters you wish you could spend a day with. In the case of DOOMSDAYS, I’d be willing to give it all up and walk the earth with these guys as they’re funny, witty, intelligent and very resourceful. The films strikes me as being very improvisational in nature yet the screenplay is structured so well that it avoids the self-indulgent trappings of the Judd Apatow/Seth Rogen variety. As a fan of the long take, I was especially pleased with the cinematography and how director Mullins had the confidence in his material and actors to simply set the camera on a tripod with a wide-angle lens and let the natural progression of events build up any humor/tension/drama/whatever the scene called for as opposed to artificially creating them via a series of contrived editing techniques.

DOOMSDAYS is currently my pick for best of fest and for that matter, best of 2013.

IT’S ME, IT’S ME (2013) – directed by Satoshi Miki

IT’S ME, IT’S ME (2013) – directed by Satoshi Miki

This film was selected to be the opening picture of the “Camera Lucida” spotlight at the 2013 Fantasia International Film Festival and they couldn’t have made a better choice.

Embodying everything that is “Camera Lucida,” which is to say quirky, eccentric, intellectually stimulating and in some cases truly revolutionary cinema, IT’S ME, IT’S ME can best be described as a Lynchian mind-fuck crossbred with the most absurd Monty Python sketch imaginable as directed by Spike Jonze (circa BEING JOHN MALKOVICH). And while Miki’s film is all of this and much more, please don’t let these comparisons fool you into thinking this is simply a cinematic cornucopia of those styles and not an original motion picture in its own right. Miki brings a sincere Japanese sensibility to the piece vis a vis the illustration of a country struggling to reconcile its adherence to Eastern traditions vs. assimilation into the impending takeover of Western values.

In the hands of a “bullshit shock director,” IT’S ME, IT’S ME might have just simply been an absurd piece for the sake of being absurd, but Miki infuses this story with a certain kind of logic grounded in reality as evident by the ending that neatly ties everything together.

A must-see and my pick for best of fest so far.

8.	LESSON OF THE EVIL (2012) – directed by Takashi Miike

LESSON OF THE EVIL (2012) – directed by Takashi Miike

I’m not entirely sure what to make of this film. On one hand, it certainly rivals ICHI THE KILLER as being Miike’s most daring and provocative film to date. However, unlike ICHI which was a brilliant deconstruction of BDSM and what it means to be a “switch” in this lifestyle, LESSON OF THE EVIL simply seems to be an exercise in excessive vulgarity and relishes in it without trying to offer any kind of social commentary.

The film starts off promisingly enough with an almost NEEDFUL THINGS-style plot where Hasumi (the titular teacher offering lessons in evil) manipulates his students and members of the faculty into playing pranks on one another, resulting in total chaos and in many cases murder. However, the film quickly descends into another boring shoot ’em up where Hasumi apparently abandons his schemes in favor of simply taking matters into his own hands and murdering everyone en masse. Aside from the unfortunate direction Miike (who co-wrote the piece) chose to make here, we simply don’t care about anyone except for Hasumi as virtually none of the characters are developed in way, shape or form. I defy anyone coming out of this film to give me the name of any other character except for Hasumi. Therefore, if Miike wanted us to feel sympathy for any of the students being slaughtered, he failed miserably.

LESSON OF THE EVIL is a missed opportunity as somewhere in the overly long 125-minute length of the film is a story that in the hands of a better filmmaker would have made for a more daring and emotionally satisfying experience. But unfortunately, you’re not going to get that in the hands of Takashi Miike.

9.	THE GRAND HEIST (2012) – directed by Joo-ho Kim

THE GRAND HEIST (2012) – directed by Joo-ho Kim

Joo-ho Kim’s THE GRAND HEIST was a real surprise as I wasn’t planning to see this film at all. But on the urging of my wife, we decided to take this one in and we enjoyed it immensely.

The film basically plays like a Korean period-piece take on OCEAN’S ELEVEN with a “Rat Pack” gang of lovable misfits planning a big heist. From start to finish, I had a big smile on my face as the writing is very sharp and funny, the actors all pull off wonderfully comedic performances and the overall tone of the film had a quirky Shaw Bros.-esque tone to it with the slickness of a contemporary Hollywood production.

I can easily see something like this being remade for American audiences, so if you get a chance, catch the real thing at a festival near you.

IP MAN: THE FINAL FIGHT (2013) – directed by Herman Yau
IP MAN: THE FINAL FIGHT (2013) – directed by Herman Yau

Quentin Tarantino has often said that his least favorite genre of film is the bio-pic. He explains that bio-pics often sacrifice a natural narrative flow in favor of linear storytelling that often becomes tedious as filmmakers strive to portray every single moment in the subject matter’s life on screen. I like to think that there are exceptions to the rule, but after watching IP MAN: THE FINAL FIGHT, I’m starting to think Tarantino may be right.

IP MAN: THE FINAL FIGHT is an exercise in sheer boredom if I’ve ever seen one before, right down to the narrator literally saying, “In 1961 we did this… then in 1962 we did that…” Any semblance of the epic and dignified approach to telling Ip Man’s lifestory in the first film is long gone in Herman Yau’s take on the material. Between the lackluster acting, made-for-TV-film cinematography and the overall “running on empty” feeling that a franchise that really peaked after the first film has, IP MAN: THE FINAL FIGHT is a film that will hopefully be forgotten in lieu of the fond memories of the immortal Donnie Yen original.

Having said this, the film isn’t entirely without merit. Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the film was the scene in which Bruce Lee comes back to Hong Kong to meet his former Master and how there seems to be a lot of tension and perhaps even resentment on Ip Man’s part towards his former pupil. When I was watching these moments, I was reminded of another thing Tarantino said about bio-pics. He felt that the only way a bio-pic could conceivably be interesting is if the filmmaker chose to tell a story on a single event in that person’s life that could translate into a three-act narrative that would be dramatically interesting for audiences.

If there was ever another IP MAN film worth making, it’s the conflict between Master Ip and Bruce Lee. When I was watching these scenes, I wished that this was the film Herman Yau chose to make.

DRUG WAR (2012) – directed by Johnnie To
I must confess that I’m not really familiar with the work of Johnnie To. Aside from the wonderful DON’T GO BREAKING MY HEART (2011) that I saw at Fantasia a couple years ago, his filmography remains a mystery to me. So to say I went into DRUG WAR with any real expectations would be a lie as I simply took a friend on his word that this was a can’t miss film. Unfortunately, it wasn’t.

There are many problems with this film but first and foremost would be the plot and the rather convoluted nature of it. On the surface, the premise of a drug dealer ratting on his friends to get a lesser sentence would seem simple enough. However, we’re introduced to hordes of characters that by the time the story finally settles down to a pace where we can soak everything in – which at my count was about 20 minutes into the picture – we don’t exactly know who’s who, nor do we really care.

I was also quite surprised by how horribly staged and filmed the action sequences are. Johnnie To is apparently up there with John Woo as being one of the pioneers of  Hong Kong action cinema, but you wouldn’t know it with DRUG WAR. The final shoot out sequence almost felt like I was watching a rough cut of the scene rather than a polished product as evident by the awkward editing and usage of some shots that only called more attention to how amateur the mis en scene was. Then again, the old adage of “fixing it in post” couldn’t really save this scene as the action itself was either shot way too close or when it was shot wide, it felt like we were watching a rehearsal where the actors were going through the motions.

And finally, my own personal objection to the material stems from my stance on the whole “war on drugs” to begin with. Here we have yet another film attempting to glamorize the “nobility” and the “moral superiority” of a war based on hypocrisy (the United States and many other first-world countries are secretly funded by drug cartels, why do we think we’re really in Afghanistan) that is financially and spiritually bankrupting the world we live in.

 

THE CONJURING (2013) - directed by James Wan

James Wan has really come a long way from SAW and DEATH SENTENCE. While both those films were arguably “highlights” of the torture porn wave of horror, they were quickly forgotten by audiences who moved on to bigger and gorier thrills. Fortunately, rather than attempt to top the HOSTELS, MARTYRS and so forth that were coming out at the time, Wan graduated to a higher level of filmmaking vis a vis his brilliant INSIDIOUS. A truly innovative and original take on the “haunted house” sub-genre of horror, Wan created a contemporary masterpiece that frightened the hell out of audiences by playing both upon our innate fear of the supernatural and the very real fear of what would happen if we woke up to find one of our children in a coma.

Wan is back with a spiritual follow-up to that film in THE CONJURING. At first glance, you’d be forgiven if you mistook this film for a sequel to INSIDIOUS what with similar casting, premise and so on, but THE CONJURING is very much its own beast. Based on the “true story” of paranormal investigators, Ed and Lorraine Warren, THE CONJURING tells the all-too familiar of a family who moves into a new home out in the woods and quickly becomes besieged by forces of the supernatural. Of course, rather than move out like any sane person would, they decide to stay there and fight it out and seek out the services of 70s-era Mulder and Scully.

THE CONJURING doesn’t exactly reinvent the wheel as far as the genre goes. If anything, it’s actually rather derivative of films like THE AMITYVILLE HORROR and Wan’s own INSIDIOUS. There are even sequences straight out of Hitchcock’s THE BIRDS and even Kubrick’s THE SHINING with homage being paid to the hedge maze scene only this time taking place between the walls of the house.

However, that being said, I’d be lying if I didn’t concede to enjoying the hell out of this film. THE CONJURING primarily works as an audience film, similar to JU-ON: THE GRUDGE or RINGU, in that your enjoyment of the film will likely be fueled by seeing it with a similar-minded audience looking to be scared. That’s not to say it wouldn’t stand on its own by watching it at home, especially if you live in a creaky old apartment/home and turn off all the lights. The make-up effects are also quite gruesome and in some cases, echo the child-scarring memories I have of seeing Zelda in PET SEMATARY.

Between INSIDIOUS and THE CONJURING, James Wan is quickly solidifying his reputation and legacy of being one of the all-time masters of horror and I for one, can’t wait to see INSIDIOUS: CHAPTER 2. I’m even curious to see FAST & FURIOUS 7. Now how scary is that?